A new longitudinal study over 22 years has found Australians have shifted their beverage preferences to more low- and no-sugar varieties, with health a major factor in the changing consumption.

The study titled, Sales of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages in Australia: A Trend Analysis from 1997 to 2018, published in Nutrients, found a 30 per cent decrease in per capita sugar contribution from non-alcoholic water-based beverages over 22 years, which is equivalent to around 32 teaspoons or 127 grams of sugar being consumed less per person, per year.

Non-sugar drinks have outsold sugar-sweetened drinks since 2015, with 59 per cent of drinks in the fridge now being non-sugar and 41 per cent being sugar sweetened. In contrast to 1997, 64 per cent of drinks were sugar-sweetened, while were 36 per cent made up of non-sugar options. 

Australian Beverage Council CEO Geoff Parker
Australian Beverage Council CEO Geoff Parker

Australian Beverages Council CEO Geoff Parker told Food & Drink Business that consumers are becoming savvier in their understanding of health and wellness, contributing to the shift.

“It’s interesting to see 20 years ago, as the study suggests, that convenience and enjoyment were the main factors for ready-to-drink beverage purchases, and that still holds true today, but the drinks fridge from 1997 to 2018 is very different,” said Parker.

“Consumers are looking for different products across and range of categories and in beverages, people are more discerning in choosing a specific drink for a specific occasion.”

“Evidence of a major change in what we’re drinking can also be found in bottled and packaged water which now outsells sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks. Volume sales of still and sparkling unflavoured water are particularly interesting as they have increased by 4.5 times, from 12 litres per person, per year in 1997, to 54 litres per person, per year in 2018.

“This shows the drinks industry is driving change in consumption that is aligned with public health goals by offering additional healthier options, more of the time.”

Fruit juices with no added sugar, however, have dropped in popularity more than carbonated soft drinks. Since 2009, the entire category has been in decline, which Parker suggests is because of the negative connotation of sugar overall.

“The natural, 100 per cent fruit juices with no added sugar have unfortunately been demonised by some public health advocates simply because of the amount of sugar in the product, which of course, is naturally occurring and originates from the piece of fruit,” Parker told F&DB.

“Unfortunately, all the great health benefits that come with drinking a small glass of juice – vitamin C, potassium, magnesium – all of those benefits are being forgotten about simply because of this demonisation of sugar.

“What a lot of people also might not know is that a small glass of juice occasionally can be substituted as a serve of fruit for those looking for an easy and convenient way to meet their daily two serves of fruit.”

Consumer demand is also a major driver for beverage companies shifting product development to low- and no-sugar varieties of popular brands, said Parker, as “technology, research and innovation by producers have created non-sugar varieties that taste identical to the sugar-sweetened variety”.

“It will be really interesting to see how the drinks fridge evolves. 1997 looked different today and 2030 will look different again but what we are seeing is the continuation of the premiumisaiton trend,” Parker said. 

“Premium mixes are becoming more popular, and the health and wellness trend will continue, as we’ve seen in recent years with the rise in kombucha and coconut water, so there’s no doubt this trend will remain well into the future.”

In November, the Australian Beverage Council announced that Australia’s leading beverage companies had cut sugar in non-alcoholic beverages by seven per cent, in the first progress report of the sugar reduction pledge, which aims to achieve 20 per cent reduction by 2025.

Parker said the council is “hoping for 10 per cent by the end of the year” and a further 10 per cent by the goal date of 2025.

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