To find out how much sugar is in a bar of chocolate or a can of cola, you simply need to take a look at the product’s label. But when it comes to alcohol, few containers display any information about sugar content at all. What’s more, alcohol is exempt from the soft drinks industry levy which applies to all non-alcoholic beverages. In this blog, Holly Gabriel, Nutrition Manager at Action on Sugar, explores how much sugar is really in our drinks and why better transparency is needed.
We live in a food environment where it is impossible not to overconsume. We are surrounded everywhere we turn by extensively promoted, cheap, sugar sweetened drinks and ultra-processed foods, high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat, that don’t fill us up. This has resulted in some of the highest rates of people living with obesity in the world, leading to poor health outcomes and costing the NHS billions. Sadly, poor diets are the biggest cause of death and disability globally and you are more likely to suffer these consequences if you are from a disadvantaged background.
The Action on Sugar campaign aims to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government, to reduce the amount of sugar and calories in processed foods, through structured reformulation programmes. These programmes are designed to incrementally change food and drink recipes to improve the nutritional profile (i.e. by reducing salt or sugar for example), to reduce incidence of tooth decay and obesity, which in turn helps reduce further health impacts such as type 2 diabetes and some cancers. These programmes are sometimes referred to as ‘health by stealth’ approaches, and ideally will all happen gradually, behind the scenes so we don’t notice the changes and not shouted about on food and drink labels, or in marketing campaigns. One reformulation policy that has been very effective is the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL).
The (SDIL) was introduced in 2018 and brought into the spotlight the true sugar content of soft drinks. Not only has it resulted in huge reductions in sugar as businesses move to avoid paying the levy, but it has also raised awareness of the excessive sugar content in some drinks. It successfully demonstrated that when properly motivated, the food and drink industry can make dramatic reductions in sugar. In the latest report on the SDIL there was a 43.7% reduction in the total sugar content per 100ml between 2015 and 2019 for the drinks subject to the levy, that’s huge!
But what about alcoholic drinks? Don’t they contain sugar too?
When it comes to alcoholic versions of soft drinks or ‘alcopops’ there is a different story. To mark Sugar Awareness Week in 2020 we carried out a survey on pre-mixed alcohol drinks, to not only get a picture of how much sugar and calories were in some of these drinks, but also to see if you could find that out easily. Nutritional information is poorly represented on packaging as nutrition labelling for alcohol is not mandatory in the UK.
Since the announcement and implementation of the SDIL you don’t see many soft drinks over 8g sugar per 100ml (Cola is around 10.6g sugar/100ml), as most drinks have been reformulated. However, alcoholic drinks in our survey had up to 14.4g sugar per 100ml and we had to send some for laboratory analysis to find that out. Anyone over 11 years old should stick to no more that 30g of added sugar per day, that’s just 7 teaspoons, here is a snapshot of some of the results of our survey:
|Drink||Size||Teaspoons of Sugar|
|TGI Fridays Pink Punk Mojito||500ml||12|
|Tesco Spiced Rum & Cola||330ml||8|
|Classic Combinations Pink Gin and Tonic||250ml||7|
Up until now we have had very little commitment by Government on the issue of alcohol labelling. We are awaiting a delayed consultation on the implementation of calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks that was expected at the end of 2020 (still no mention of sugar). In a society where we are now tuned in to the health impacts of sugar, it is time that the alcohol industry took their responsibilities seriously as sugar + alcohol equals a double whammy for health that we can’t continue to ignore.
Written by Holly Gabriel
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.