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Action on Sugar

Sugar-sweetened beverages

Tuesday 15th Nov 2016

Cross-sectional survey of the amount of free sugars and calories in carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages on sale in the UK (BMJ Open) [PDF 666KB]

Media Coverage: 

A study being published today in the BMJ Open entitled: Cross-sectional survey of the amount of sugar and calories in carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages on sale in the UK  reveals, that the sugar  content in carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages (CSSB) was found to be alarmingly high – with large variation in sugar content between different flavours and within the same type of flavour ranging from 3.3 to 52.8 g/330 mL – equivalent to 12 teaspoons.

On average, ginger beer (38.5±9.9 g/ 330 mL) contained the highest amounts of sugar and ginger ale (22.9±7.7 g/330 mL) contained the lowest amount of sugar.

Cola flavour contained 35.0±1.1 g/330 mL of free sugar, ranging from 32.0 to 37.3 g/330 mL. The supermarket own brand contained lower levels of sugars than branded products (27.9±10.6 vs 31.6±10.6 g/ 330 mL). Whilst Cola flavour is the most popular flavour in the UK with an average sugar content of 35.0±1.1 g/ 330 mL, owing to the huge volume consumed, even small reductions would have a significant impact on sugar and calorie intake of the population.

On average, a can (330 mL) of CSSB (30.1±10.7 g/ 330 mL) contains more than the entire maximum daily recommendation for sugar intake in the UK (30 g – 7.5 teaspoons), with 55% exceeding the maximum UK’ s daily recommendation for sugar intake (30 g) per 330 mL can size and 73% of the products exceeding the maximum daily recommendation for free sugars intake for a child (24 g/d).

Soft drinks are the main contributor of free sugars intake in children (4-10 years), teenagers (11-18 years) and the second main contributor in adults (18-64 years) – contributing to 30%, 40% and 25% of free sugars intake, respectively. Within soft drinks, carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages are an important contributor of free sugars intake. Carbonates were the largest single category of the soft drinks market in 2013 with a 44.8% market share of volume.

The findings demonstrate that the amount of sugar added to CSSB could be reduced without technical issues, there is an urgent need to reduce sugar by either setting incremental sugar reduction targets or ensuring the soft drinks sugar levy does result in reductions in sugar levels.

Currently in the UK a tiered soft drinks industry levy is being proposed (high, low and no tax for drinks >8g, 5g to 8g, and

This study is now calling for all sugar sweetened drinks to be reduced below 5g/100ml threshold as well as other measures including mandatory front of pack labeling of free sugars, public education, portion size reductions and warning labels. This reduction in sugar content and overall consumption will reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental caries.

Kawther Hashem co-author of the BMJ Open study and researcher for Action on Sugar at Queen Mary University of London says, “Our study shows that the majority of carbonated sugar-sweetened drinks available in supermarkets exceed the maximum daily recommendation for sugar intake for an adult (30g/d) and a child (24 g/d). It is therefore not possible to state that carbonated sugar-sweetened drinks can be consumed as part of a ‘healthy balanced diet’ even though drinks companies claim it can be.

“Cola flavour is the most popular flavour in the UK, owing to the huge volume consumed; even small reductions would have a significant impact on free sugars and calorie intake of the population. We hope the soft drinks industry levy will make drinks manufacturers reduce the levels of sugar in their products immediately and help reduce our risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental caries.”

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar says, “This study illustrates the huge contribution of sugar-sweetened drinks to our sugar intake, which is directly linked to the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes. We welcome the soft drinks industry levy and particularly the incentive it’s created to companies that want to avoid the levy by reducing the sugar levels to below 5g/100ml.

“This has already resulted in one of the largest supermarkets (Tesco) to reduce sugar in all their own brand soft drinks to below 5g/100ml.  Suntory have also pledged that they will reduce sugar in all their sugar sweetened drinks to below the lower band levy, this includes for instance Lucozade and Ribena.  Other supermarkets and branded companies must now follow suit, particularly Coca Cola and PepsiCo, as sugar sweetened drinks are the main contributor to sugar intake, in children and adolescents.”


Obesity Health Alliance said, “It will be no surprise to most people that soft drinks contain a lot of sugar - but it’s the sheer amount of sugar that will come as a shock to many.  Drinking just one can of ginger beer or cola for example, would immediately take you over the daily recommended limit for sugar – significantly over if you’re a child.  

“This type of ‘free sugar’ is nothing but empty calories and is seriously endangering people’s health. Type 2 diabetes, poor dental health and obesity are all on the rise and are becoming more prevalent amongst children and young people. It is no coincidence that sugary drinks are the main source of sugar intake for this age group.

“The case for the soft drinks industry levy, coupled with the reformulation of soft drinks to reduce their sugar content, has never been clearer.  It is vital that this is implemented without dilution and the progress of voluntary reformulation monitored closely.  It’s encouraging to see certain industry leaders already taking action to reduce the amount of sugar in their products and others pledging to do the same. The nation’s diet needs to be unsweetened – and fast.”

Sarah Toule, Head of Health Information at World Cancer Research Fund said, "This research emphasises the urgent need to reduce the amount of sugar in soft drinks if we are to tackle the obesity epidemic, especially as they are children’s main source of free sugars."
“Over-consuming these high-calorie soft drinks with little nutritional value can lead to being overweight and obese, which can increase the risk of developing 11 common cancers in later life, including breast and prostate.”

Dr Mick Horton, Dean of the Faculty of General Dental Practice (UK), said: “The recent news that some manufacturers and supermarkets are reformulating their soft drinks ranges is welcome, and shows that the Sugar Tax is working even before its implementation. However the fact that three-quarters of fizzy drinks contain more sugar in a single portion than a child should consume in an entire day proves they cannot form part of a healthy and balanced diet, and stronger action is needed.

“Further restrictions on advertising of high sugar drinks, and a ban on price promotions, would help stop tens of thousands of children having to be hospitalised to have their teeth extracted, and if the government makes reformulation to under 5g of sugar per 100ml mandatory, the savings to the NHS will far outstrip the tax foregone, and more importantly the nation’s health will be improved.”

Alex Holt, Food Active said, “This is a useful study and clearly shows the unnecessarily high levels of sugar in many sugar-sweetened beverages. In the North West we suffer from disproportionate levels of both childhood and adult obesity, along with diabetes and tooth decay. The high levels of sugar in these drinks certainly contributes to these serious public health issues which is why developed Give up Loving Pop. The study adds weight to the argument for a sugary drinks industry levy and the hope that many companies will follow Lucozade Ribena Suntory’s lead by significantly reducing the sugar content of their drinks.”


For more information contact: David Clarke @ Rock PR:
M: 07773 225516

[1] Public link once embargo lifts:

The research was carried out to evaluate the sugar content listed on the labels of CSSB products sold in the UK, report the variability in sugar level and assess the free sugars content in relation to the UK’s new daily recommendation for free sugars intake. Click here [PDF 287KB] for data. 

[2] ‘Sugar’ is used short for ‘free sugars’. ‘Free sugars’ includes sugars that are added to food and drink, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates, not sugars in milk products and whole fruit & vegetables.  Some of the sugars will be from the milk in the majority of these products but there is no way of differentiating between the amount of free sugars verses the amount of lactose naturally occurring in the milk.

[3] The government will introduce a new soft drinks industry levy to help tackle childhood obesity, by incentivising companies to reduce the sugar in the drinks they sell, to fund a doubling of the primary schools sports premium to £320 million per year from September 2017

[4] Tesco praised for cutting sugar in own brand drinks -

[5] Sugar in Lucozade reduced by 50% to escape tax penalty -

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