Sugar tax: What is the UK's most sugary drink?

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine


The government is to tax soft drink manufacturers who put large amounts of sugar in their products. But which fizzy drinks have the highest levels?

The UK loves soft drinks. Altogether people got through 14.8 billion litres last year, or 232.9 litres each.

In response to growing concern over obesity, Chancellor George Osborne is imposing a levy on soft drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100ml. There's a higher rate for those with more than 8g per 100ml. Fruit juice and milk-based drinks are exempt.

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility suggests the levy will add 18p or 24p per litre, or about 6p or 8p to a standard 330ml can.

One of the highest levels of sugar is found in Old Jamaica Ginger Beer. Its Extra Fiery drink has 15.7g - or just under four teaspoons - of sugar per 100ml. The recommended maximum daily sugar intake for someone over the age of 11 is 30g a day, or 7.5 teaspoons.

There are 13 teaspoons of sugar in a standard 330ml can of Extra Fiery, or 39 in a litre.

Another very sugary product is the energy drink Rockstar Punched Guava, on 15.6g per 100ml. Old Jamaica Ginger Beer - the standard version - contains 15.2g per 100ml.

There's a wide variation in the amount of sugar in products, Old Jamaica Ginger Beer Extra Fiery containing seven and a half times as much as Tango Apple.

Cott Beverages, which makes Old Jamaica, says it's made "using a traditional recipe, which includes authentic Jamaican root ginger, to create its trademark fiery taste". It's "designed to be a treat" and there is a diet version available, a spokeswoman adds. "We have removed billions of calories from the soft drinks we manufacture over the last few years and will continue to work with our retailer partners and own brands to provide great-tasting drinks."

Mountain Dew, Cherry Coke, Pepsi Cola, Red Bull, 7 Up, Coca Cola, Irn Bru, Vimto and Lucozade Energy Original are some of the other major products sugary enough to incur the higher-rate levy.

Those set to go on the lower levy include Dr Pepper, Fanta Orange, Sprite and Schweppes Indian Tonic Water.

But several products aren't sugary enough for a charge. These include Lilt, Tango Orange and R Whites Lemonade.

Image source, PA

Overall, the British Soft Drinks Association says the sector has reduced sugar levels by 13.6% since 2012. It calls the targeting of its members "absurd" at a time when "sugar and calorie intake from all other major take home food categories is increasing". It's also keen to point out that 57% of the soft drinks market is taken up by low and no-calorie drinks.

Ian Macdonald, professor of metabolic physiology at Nottingham University, questions the need for the high levels of sugar in some soft drinks. "What we are finding is that, where manufacturers are reducing the sugar content, it doesn't undermine the sweet taste."

Some manufacturers are adding sugar substitute stevia to their drinks to make up for a shortfall in sweetness when they reduce the sugar content, he says. But others are simply cutting the sugar.

The sugar tax will be levied from 2018, which the government says will give manufacturers time to change their products.

Macdonald says most people wouldn't notice the difference if a product with eight or nine grams of sugar per 100ml had this reduced to six or seven grams.

Image source, PA

"In the case of Old Jamaica, it may be that the ginger, which is fiery, tastes a bit bitter to many people," he says. "In order to get the same sweetness level as you see in a cola or lemonade, you may need to add more sugar." But even this could probably be reduced, he adds.

The estimated £520m raised by the sugar levy will be put towards boosting primary school sports. The campaign group Action on Sugar has called for further penalties for drink manufacturers who don't reduce sugar levels ahead of the charges coming into force.

Of course, fizzy drinks aren't the only soft drinks. But pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks will be excluded from the tax and the smallest producers will have an exemption. This would appear to cover Welch's 100% Purple Grape Juice which, with 16.5g of sugar per 100ml, has a higher rating than the Old Jamaica Ginger Beer Extra Fiery.

And it's not just soft drinks firms that have faced criticism over sugar content. Action on Sugar reported last month that 98% of the 131 hot flavoured drinks found in the large High Street chains would carry a "red" warning for excessive levels of sugar. Starbucks' Hot Mulled Fruit - containing grape with chai, orange and cinnamon - contained 99g, or 25 teaspoons, of it.

The chef Jamie Oliver, who campaigns for more education on food and drink, performed a celebratory dance outside Parliament after Osborne announced the tax in his Budget speech. Whether its effects live up to his expectations remains to be seen.

Follow Justin Parkinson on Twitter @justparkinson

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