Whether people follow the grocery sector in detail or take a casual interest as shoppers, most would be aware of the transformation that has taken place in supermarket aisles over the past decade as manufacturers work hard to develop and launch healthier formulations of major food and beverage brands. Probably the most obvious success is the soft drink aisle, where there has been a proliferation of low- and no-sugar options. Where once there was just a sugar version of each brand, now lower kilojoule options dominate the shelf.

Most of the reformulation work has been done by the major manufacturers such as Coca-Cola Amatil and Frucor Suntory, who have both invested heavily and innovated to launch low-cal versions of the well-known brands and develop new ranges.

For example, between 2015 and 2017, Coca-Cola reformulated 22 products, removing some or all of their sugar, while Frucor Suntory achieved similar excellent results and developed new ranges like Sparkling OH! and others. As a result, there are now more low- or no-sugar formulations on our supermarket shelves than ever.  All this extra choice has made a big difference to sales of sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs), which have continued to decline as consumers switch.

Sales data shows that between 2000 and 2018, the sales volume of SSBs dropped from 64% to 45%, while sales of beverages with no sugar rocketed from 4% to 24%. In the past couple of years that trend has continued. These changes are even more pronounced in Australia, where a new and comprehensive study collected sales volume data collected by research companies Nielsen and IRI.

This study is significant to New Zealand because the range of soft drinks, and the buying, eating and drinking habits of Australians are very similar to ours. And it’s significant because the volume of data it collects makes it more robust.

It shows that in the 21 years between 1997 and 2018, the per capita volume sales of SSBs fell from 83 litres per person to 61 litres – a drop of 27%. That’s equivalent to a reduction of 32 teaspoons (127 grams) of sugar per person, per year. It says these changes were driven largely by declining sales of sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks, which fell from 76 litres to 45 litres per capita.

So what were people drinking instead? Over the same period, sales of non-SSB’s jumped from 48 litres to 88 litres per capita, with the biggest contributor being pure unflavoured still waters – up from 6 litres to 48 litres. In fact, bottled and packaged water now outsells sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks.

The Australian Beverages Council says that in 1997 some 64% of drinks in fridges in supermarkets, dairies and service stations were SSBs, with the remaining 36% non-sugar options. That has been flipped on its head, with 59% of fridges now taken up by non-sugar, with SSBs comprising just 41%. The study also shows the annual contribution of SSBs to the sugar content of the national Australian diet dropped from 9 kilograms per person to 6.4 over the 21-year period.

So, what has this drop in sugar consumption meant for the health of Australians?

Data from the Australian Health Department shows that in 1995 some 57% of adults were overweight or obese. But by 2017/18 that had jumped to a concerning 67%.  So, over almost exactly the same period of time that SSB consumption was dropping by 27%, obesity was going in the opposite direction. This mirrors what we know has been happening, though on a smaller scale, in New Zealand.

Health Ministry figures on overweight and obese adults go back only as far as 2006 but they show a rise from 62.5% then to 66.8% of the population to 2018 – all while sales of SSB’s were dropping and sales of non-sugar beverages were rocketing. On these numbers, perhaps it’s time to re-set the narrative on obesity. We’ve always maintained it’s wrong to demonise one ingredient when the issue is so complex.

(originally published in Supermarket News)