Blog: Dean BestSugar on everyone's lips at ISM

Dean Best | 28 January 2014

It's January so, for the global confectionery industry, that means ISM, the annual trade fair in Cologne that pulls in visitors and exhibitors from around the world. However, the heightened scrutiny on sugar in recent weeks is giving everyone here plenty to think about.

Sugar has grabbed the headlines since the start of the year. Earlier this month, academics in the UK, US and Canada launched Action on Sugar to try to pressure the industry to reduce the level of sugar in food.

In the UK, the ingredient has been the subject of a Dispatches programme entitled 'Are You Addicted To Sugar?' by Channel 4, while the BBC is set to broadcast its own look into the subject, 'Sugar vs Fat', tomorrow (29 January).

And this month a number of front pages in the UK have carried headlines on the country's "obesity crisis" after a report from The National Obesity Forum has claimed previous forecasts that half the UK's population could be obese by 2050 may have underestimated the problem.

Among exhibitors at ISM, there was an acknowledgement the issue - already on manufacturers' radars - is growing in importance.

UK biscuit maker Macleans Highland Bakery said its customers are showing more interest in the company developing healthier products. "We're looking at it," a spokesperson says. Though she is coy on the company's plans, she adds: "For us not to react to that would be pretty silly."

In some quarters of the industry, there has been some frustration at the criticism levelled at manufacturers for their use of sugar and the claims about the ingredient's link to obesity.

Ahead of the Channel 4's Dispatches programme, UK industry association The Food and Drink Federation said the "recent media coverage around sugar" show "some still take an over simplistic approach to tackling obesity and its associated diseases".

UK confectioner Bon Bon Buddies, which sells products under licence agreements with entertainment brands from Disney to One Direction, said there could be unintended consequences from the recent attacks on sugar.

"We have to be careful. We're in the business of selling treats for kids and we should keep that in perspective," Bon Bon Buddies MD Chris Howarth told just-food.

"Also, there have been a number of drivers in the industry to find other solutions for sugar and then you could be into other additives that are more harmful. My view is that formulation should be kept as simple and original as possible."

With sugar in the spotlight, there is, of course, an opportunity for ingredients suppliers to offer brand-owners help in developing healthier lines.

B2B chocolate giant Barry Callebaut said it made tackling the issue a priority as far back as 2006.

Marijke De Brouwer, innovation manager at Barry Callebaut, said the B2B chocolate giant's customers had already reduced sugar in some of their products - but just had not communicated it to consumers for fear some would turn away.

"I do see with a lot of customers they have been reducing, they have been limiting the sugar in their finished products - but they have not been communicating it," she told just-food at ISM. "When we did research in the past, for consumers when you talk about a minus, if there is something missing, then to them it is less tasty, which is not the case."

However, she acknowledged the launch of Action on Sugar and the increased media interest in the issue had led more to more enquiries from customers. "When it was launched, we got questions. It had an impact."

Beneo, the food ingredients arm of German sugar giant Suedzucker, echoes Barry Callebaut's views. Thomas Schmidt, marketing manager at Beneo, said the scrutiny sugar was "in line with the mega trends" seen across the industry for healthier products. Beneo's sales of ingredients that can help develop products with less sugar were already increasing, he said.

However, Schmidt said the issue will only grow in importance. "Consumer pressure will increase and obesity will increase, we all know it. It will get worse and the pressure will get worse [on our customers]."

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