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Singapore's sugary drink restrictions will not help citizens' health

Nutri-Grade labels stigmatize healthy drinks and promote confusion

| Singapore
Beverage manufacturers have already pledged to reduce sugar content.   © AP

Matt Kovac is Executive Director of trade body Food Industry Asia.

Singapore's fight against diabetes is ramping up. The Ministry of Health has announced that, by the end of 2021, prepackaged nonalcoholic drinks in Singapore with a high sugar or saturated fat content will have to display new color-coded nutrient-summary labels, with grades ranging from A to D.

Advertising drinks that are graded D, the unhealthiest, will be prohibited on all media platforms. These measures will also be applied to freshly prepared drinks such as pressed juices and popular bubble teas -- a welcome decision as such products are becoming a growing source of sugar in people's diets.

These measures come as the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes -- the kind acquired by overweight or inactive people -- in Singapore continues to grow. A 2014 academic article -- the most recent on the topic -- predicted the number of residents above 40 with diabetes would reach 670,000 by 2030. This article further suggested that the rate of Type 2 diabetes among Singapore's adults would rise from 7.3% in 1990 to 15% in 2050; in 2016 it was 9.1%, according to the World Health Organization.

But the government has taken quite a blunt approach: by changing what is and what is not acceptable so quickly, it will affect the progress companies have achieved so far in reformulation -- a lengthy and risky process as manufacturers have to ensure that the changes do not affect the product's taste profile. It needs to pull back the new restrictions to prevent consumers from switching to alternatives that could be even less healthy.

Beverage manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, F&N Foods, PepsiCo and Nestle have already pledged to reduce sugar content around the world as they aggressively step up efforts to reformulate their products.

Similarly, in Singapore, they and several other companies made bold commitments in 2017 to reduce sugar content in beverages to 12% or less by the end of 2020. Now, research and development executives will have to reduce sugar to 10 grams per 100 milliliters as part of the new Nutri-Grade labeling scheme -- shifting the goal posts.

Statistics from the Health Promotion Board, the agency tasked with implementing the new system, already show that only 6% of sugar-sweetened beverages in Singapore contain more than 12% sugar. In fact, almost one third of these beverages are within the range of 0%-6% sugar.

At the same time, it is imperative that any move to mandate front-of-pack labeling takes into consideration consumers' understanding of new labels, which should aim to provide easy to understand nutrition information that guides healthy dietary choices.

The decision to mandate the new Nutri-Grade labels for Grade C and D beverages could, however, stigmatize foods and lead to consumer confusion.

For example, based on the grading system behind the new labels, some full-fat milk is categorized as Grade C and is only ranked ahead of Grade D products, which are deemed to be the unhealthiest. However, scientific studies have shown that dairy products, including full-fat milk, are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet based on the high-value nutrients they contain.

Based on the grading system, some full-fat milk is categorized as Grade C.   © Reuters

The labels could also impact trade. Unlike the Healthier Choice Scheme, which is already recognized in Singapore and is aligned to guidelines in markets like Malaysia, the Nutri-Grade label will come with a new set of criteria and guidelines. As a result, revisions will need to be made to realign and harmonize guidelines to promote trade.

In addition, the new advertising restrictions on Grade D beverages are now stricter than those currently in place for alcoholic beverages, which is disproportionate given that sugar-sweetened drinks are legal and safe for consumers.

The impact of the advertising ban could be partially offset by companies lowering product prices and by consumers switching to alternative beverages with higher sugar content -- negating the reasons behind implementing the new measures in the first place.

To get ahead of some of the unintended consequences of introducing these rules, the government and industry must work together to educate consumers on how the measures, especially the Nutri-Grade labels, will impact their consumption and purchasing behaviors.

For consumers to make a meaningful decision based on the information provided on product labels, it is important that they have a grasp of how sugar-sweetened beverages are categorized, including understanding what each grade means; what the recommended intake of drinks in each category is; and how this affects their overall diet.

To do so in a meaningful manner, all stakeholders including beverage manufacturers and industry bodies like Food Industry Asia need to come together on framing and communicating information to consumers to address their concerns and questions.

Time will tell if the new measures are able to benefit consumers. In the meantime, the food industry will continue to stand with our partners to support a variety of scientifically based solutions that can effectively tackle the complex health challenges faced by Singaporeans.

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