Sugar tax unlikely to change people’s habits; yet brands must commit to healthier options, says TNS

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Consumer awareness of high sugar products is higher than it has ever been, with ready meals, fruit juices and smoothies no longer escaping scrutiny. Over six in 10 (62%) of consumers now recognise juices and smoothies like Innocent and Tropicana as highly sugary.

Meanwhile 48% and 43% of people respectively see ready meals and tinned soup – previously identified as “healthy” – as high-sugar products.

Despite this, new findings from research consultancy TNS show that only 8% of buyers will buy fewer fizzy drinks when George Osborne’s new sugar tax is introduced.

While the sugar tax is unlikely to have a significant impact on buying habits, the recent announcement from Mars has in many ways had a bigger impact on consumer behaviour.

Mars – the company behind Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s sauces – recently announced that certain products should only be consumed once a week due to high salt, sugar or fat content.

Research from TNS found that 33% of people said they would scrutinise food labels more closely in light of this announcement and 32% said they would do more home-cooking, posing a potential threat to takeaway and ready meals.

Mars has also promised to distinguish between “everyday” and “occasional” items on packaging and its website.

When asked what they thought of Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s in the light of Mars’s announcement, over one in five people (23%) said it made them look on these brands more favourably, suggesting that for some consumers, honesty is the best policy.

For brands, the major challenge now is to ensure that food and drink is toeing the line for recommended sugar intake, to ensure products won’t fall foul of either future government legislation, or consumer censure.

Eve Dixon, FMCG Managing Director at TNS, commented on the findings: “Although soft drinks are in the firing line for Osborne’s controversial sugar tax, this tax is unlikely to make a real difference to people’s habits. Yet as people wise up to the hidden sugar content in things like baked beans, juices, ready-meals and soup, many are independently choosing to make different lifestyle choices.

“Companies need to work on a business approach to ensure that the brand is providing less sugary options, knowing that many customers will be scrutinising food labels more closely in the future. In the meantime, being as open and transparent as possible will prevent backlash.

“By committing to significantly reduce salt and added sugar across its global product portfolio by 2021, Mars has also showed it is willing to put its money where its mouth is – an important lesson for other food brands as sugar continues to stay in the spotlight.”

The Government announced in this year’s Budget that soft drinks companies will pay a levy on drinks with added sugar from April 2018, based on products with sugar content above 5g or 8g per 100ml. Drinks which currently fall under the higher rate of tax include full-strength Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Lucozade Energy and Irn-Bru.