“This book is for those of you who eat food. The rest of you are off the hook.” So wrote Dr Robert Lustig in his now famous exposé, Fat Chance: the Hidden Truth about Sugar, Obesity and Disease. When it was published in 2012, Lustig’s portrayal of sugar as the bad guy and fat as the fall guy really raised some eyebrows. It doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous claim anymore and responses to the assertion may make you innovate.

Lustig’s book came to mind as I listened to BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme on 8th April. Reporter Dan Saladino explored the history behind the sugar tax that has just become part of UK law. The details of the tax are easily available from many sources, where you can read and listen to the arguments both for and against it. It’s worth half an hour of your time. If you want an earlier treatise on the subject, you can read Pure, White and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It, by John Yudkin, first published in 1972.

However long you believe this debate has been going on, the data is pretty compelling.

We know our health is significantly affected by what we eat, and sugar is an increasingly large part of that. The World Health Organisation says that adults and children would see clear health benefits from reducing their daily intake of free sugars to roughly 5% of daily nutritional intake or 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons).The UK’s sugar intake is estimated to be roughly three times the recommended amount, and gets close to 33kg a year per person. While this can come from all kinds of foods, largely it’s processed foods that provide it.

Soft drinks tax – the beginning of change?

The UK Treasury warned the soft drinks industry of its tax intentions, giving manufacturers time to alter the formulations of drinks on the shelves. As of last week, when the ‘sugar tax’ came into force, most drinks sit comfortably within taxable limits, with a couple of notable exceptions – Coke Red and Pepsi Blue.

The financial penalty forced on brands by the UK government has resulted in a change in product, rather than a push towards changing consumer behaviour. A cause was identified and the effect remains to be seen. Will consumption reduce as a result? Will public health improve? Time will tell.

Thinking this through, knowing that sugar is having a detrimental effect on our health and that it’s added to many processed foods, the logical extrapolated thought is to cut sugar across the board. By reducing the amount of an ingredient to the industry and by penalising its use, legislation can be used to modify the national diet. Precedent exists: smoking bans and alcohol consumption recommendations do influence consumer behaviour. The sugar message isn’t going away and newly-educated consumers will respond as they come to market.

Less sugar…or more?

Somewhat perversely, however, the UK’s Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recently removed quotas and minimum prices on sugar. Effectively, they’ve introduced into the UK’s agricultural policy an incentive to produce more and cheaper sugar. Here’s the same government, on the one hand, taxing manufacturers on the use of an ingredient and, on the other, facilitating an increase in its production. Competing macro factors at opposite ends of the same supply chain – I’d say there’s a need for some joined-up thinking here.

As the UK prepares to exit the EU, one of the many new policies written will be for agriculture. Here’s why business innovation, invention and consumer opinion provide so many opportunities. The chance to align health targets with agriculture and policy on food and nutrition seems an obvious one to take. But, as we can see from the current situation, the blindingly obvious isn’t always the most popular.

Macro trends already impacting consumer reaction to lifestyle and food consumption include: improved nutritional education in schools; consumers demanding healthier alternatives; an uplift in the use of wearable monitors; insurance companies discounting services for lifestyle adjustments; and even a growth in demand for the services of nutritionists and dietitians. Across all of this must sit governmental health policy.

Be the disruptor

By getting close to what your consumers are really asking for, and reading the signs about possible legislation, there’s a chance for established brands to be the disruptors and not the disrupted. This will call for a change of emphasis in company innovation strategy and more creativity in developing scenario planning landscapes that management will be able to believe in.

If businesses in the UK make the most of the opportunities provided by Brexit and connect the dots between policy, regulation and consumer trends, the strategies that emerge could achieve what the European Union has never managed. If you want to have a business based in the UK when Brexit is done, or you want to sell into the UK, this is how you’ll need to think.

To carry on this conversation, contact helpme@room44.co.uk and I’ll call you back myself.

Further reading and listening:

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