Pinch of Sugar


July 8, 2024

Sharleen D’Souza, Business Standard

Mumbai, 7 July 2024

In 2023, after more than two years of development and testing, Mondelez India launched a version of Bournvita that delivers about half the recommended daily allowance of key micronutrients for children, including iron, iodine, and zinc, as well as vitamins A, C and D. All this while having 15 per cent less added sugar.

“Prior to this and around two years ago we also introduced Bournvita 50 per cent less sugar variant to provide an option for consumers. We have made adaptations to our portfolio products like Bournvita biscuits, which now have 15 per cent less sugar, and our most loved Oreo chocolate variant has also seen a 5 per cent decrease in sugar content,” the company said in an email.

This drive is not confined to Mondelez. Other multinational companies, too, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle India, have been working on bringing down the sugar, salt, and sodium content. They could be patting themselves on the back for doing this. Not only has the Indian consumer become more health conscious than ever — with all the talk going around that salt and sugar are two of the monsters in your kitchen (the third being maida) — but also the country’s food regulator has swung into action.

On Saturday, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) approved a proposal that information about the sugar, salt and saturated fat content on labels of packaged foods and beverages should be bolder and bigger. “Along with empowering consumers to make healthier choices, the amendment will also contribute towards efforts to combat the rise of noncommunicable diseases and promote public health and wellbeing,” the FSSAI said in a statement.

Earlier, the regulator advised ecommerce platforms to ensure that dairy-, cereal-, and maltbased beverage mixes were not available under the “health drinks” or “energy drinks” categories. The recommended sugar intake is 20 grams a day for adults and 25 grams a day for those below 18. Not more than 5 to 10 per cent of a person’s total energy intake should come from sugar. Children under two are not supposed to consume any added sugar. However, these guidelines are often breached because people tend to consume packaged foods.

Therefore, experts and activists have been calling for a different labelling, which would announce out loud what lies inside.

(Source: Business Standard)

Eating right, drinking right

Some multinationals had already been working on reducing the salt and sugar content. For instance, Coca-Cola removed more than 900,000 tonnes of added sugar globally since 2017, and 19 of its top 20 brands offer reduced-sugar or zero-sugar options. In India, Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid Honey Infused drinks offer added dietary fibre for healthy digestion in three flavours.

“In 2022, approximately 68 per cent of our global beverage portfolio contained less than 100 calories per 12-ounce serving (350 ml), with 246 low- or no-sugar options launched,” Coca-Cola India said in a statement to Business Standard.

The company added that it prioritised transparency by placing calorie information on the front of all its packaging worldwide and did not market its products directly to children under 13.

Nestle India joined the FSSAI’s Eat Right movement and signed the pledge to reduce an average of 6 per cent added sugar, 10 per cent salt, and 2.5 per cent fat in its relevant product categories. “The company has achieved these commitments,” it said.

Varun Beverages, PepsiCo’s India bottler, told its investors on a conference call that its gross margins improved significantly, rising by 385 basis points to 56.3 per cent — and sugar had a role to play in it.

“This increase was largely driven by our focus on reducing sugar content and the light-weighting packaging material, incidentally, also meeting our sustainability initiatives along with the benefits from reduced PET prices which contributed to this improvement,” Raj Pal Gandhi, chief financial officer of Varun Beverages, said on the investor call.

Approximately 46 per cent of the company’s reconsolidated sales volumes, he said, came from low-sugar or no-sugar products. The no- or less-sugar trend is working for the company as it optimises its cost structure and enhances its overall efficiency.

“These efforts have had a tangible impact on our financial performance with EBITDA increasing by 23.9 per cent to the level of Rs. 988.76 crore year-on-year, and the Ebitda margin improving by 240 basis points to the level of 22.9 per cent in quarter one of 2024 (January-March),” Gandhi said. Ebitda, a widely accepted benchmark of profitability, is short for earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation.

“So, we are developing more and more — Gatorade, we mentioned a new launch which PepsiCo has given us formulation with zero sugar. So, effort is there, and constant effort is there to reduce the sugar content,” Gandhi said. PepsiCo India said in an earlier statement it had initiated trials of a blend of sunflower oil and palmolein oil in certain parts of its portfolio last year, thus becoming one of the few players in the food industry in India to do so.

Rush of junk

Experts say the standards for food and beverages vary across the world and India should have its own. “There should be thresholds for healthy and unhealthy and, in my view, this should be labelled boldly on the front of the pack,” says Arun Gupta, convener, Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest (NAPi), a think tank.

A report titled The Junk Rush, jointly brought out by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India and NAPi, said: “India faces a severe public health crisis of obesity and diabetes.” In 2022, a group of public health experts, consumers, lawyers, and patient groups had called upon the government of India to check the soaring consumption of junk food among the country’s youth.

“Certain countries are more stringent than others. Even global brands have the same product, but the ingredients differ across countries and continents,” says Devangshu Dutta, founder of Third Eyesight. He explains that India still has some road to travel on food safety, alleging that some ingredients benefit companies more — such as by providing a longer shelf life — than the consumer.

“The Indian regulator is still very new to the game. If you look at processed foods, it is a newer market and the regulator needs to pick-up pace,” Dutta says.

On Saturday, the FSSAI picked up pace.

(Published in Business Standard)