February's news of the amount of sugar in some high-street chain hot drinks prompted an array of stories in the media. As the government ups its attempt to tackle the obesity crisis, should operators allow customers to make their own choices or lead them towards healthier drinks? Tom Vaughan reports
For anyone who's sized up a Starbucks mocha on a cold morning and then let their eye wonder over to the calorie content, February's revelation that one-third of hot drinks on the high street are as sugary as Coca-Cola might not have been that shocking. However, the story was picked up by the national media and created something of a hullaballoo.
For those who missed the furore, research by campaign group Action on Sugar found that some speciality drinks contained up to three times more sugar than a can of Coke. Among the chief offenders was the Starbucks hot mulled fruit drink in grape, chai, orange and cinnamon flavour. To put the drink in context, if it were your morning pick-me-up, it would equate to starting your day with the sugar content of almost two and a half Mars bars.
Starbucks will rightfully point you towards its online and in-store nutritional information, which not only lists the calorie content, but - online - the sugar content as well. Steve Slark, chairman of the Beverages Standards Association (BSA), says many chains willingly list their calorie contents in-store or online. "If they are listing the calorific contents, what more do you expect them to do? If you are having a coffee laden with caramel syrup, extra cream and caramel drizzle on top, you kind of expect it to have a sugar content," he says. "It was obviously a skinny news week and I felt it was a 'shock horror' story."
Slark is at pains to point out that the BSA is tweaking its training in accordance to the growing concerns around unhealthy options: "It's a fault of those chains if they don't offer you sugar-free syrups. We have traditionally trained baristas about the origins of coffee and how to make it properly, and discussions about sugar content had not been part of that process. But moving forward we feel that it should be part of the consumer experience. If asked, you should know the answer to the question on sugars."
However, Rosborough feels that education is not enough: "Lots of people don't pay attention to the calories and the sugar. Public Health England came out with a sugar reduction report that said our food environment is so unhealthy that it is really difficult to make healthy choices and it has gone beyond education.
Only the health-conscious look at the calorie content, so there is a whole target audience that won't be reached if we just rely on education. Instead, we want them to reduce the amount of sugars so that, over time, our taste preferences change and the products become healthier."
For those operators conscious of the health impact of such drinks, what alternatives are on offer? While the long-term goal is the lessening of our national sweet tooth, Rosborough feels that in the short term, sugar-free syrups are an option: "Ideally, we'd rather see overall sweetness reduced, but we know that with the obesity epidemic it is about getting the calories out now as a short-term solution."
Angus McKenzie, managing director at Kimbo Coffee and director, southern region, of the BSA, says that operators should be aware just how far some of these sugar-free options have come: "What we should remember is we have gone from artificial saccharine sweeteners to having a more natural fructose-based sweeteners, to now having natural, plant-based sweeteners.
The percentage of sweeteners to sugars used in foodservice climbs and climbs and climbs - that all tells us that consumers are increasingly making informed choices."
He recommends Taylerson's Malmesbury Syrups and the syrups that his own company uses, Maison Routin, as good suppliers offering quality, sugar-free syrups.
McKenzie is also keen to point out that a coffee product made by properly trained staff will offset the need for extra sugar, and go some way to sating a customers desire for sugary syrups: "When a barista is foaming the milk, following correct procedures and breaking down the proteins, that will have a natural sweetness.
And if that is combined with an espresso that has been well roasted and blended, it will have a natural sweetness. So a high-quality product - assuming it's a latte or cappuccino - will not have such a need for sugar."
As Slark says, often the addition of syrup is there to mask a low-quality product. By concentrating on more artisan products, operators could deliver drinks that are both flavoursome, naturally sweet and healthy.
Ben Newbury, brand manager at Taylors of Harrogate, says his company has concentrated its offering towards this with a focus on full-bodied fruit teas. "What we have done most recently with our fruit and herbal range in partnership with Kew Gardens is focus on extraordinary flavour and sweetness. Something like our Sweet Rhubarb tea has no natural sugar but tastes sweet, zings and could be a good replacement for a drink that would be sugary."
Sometimes, of course, customers will have a one-track mind for the sugar-fat-caffeine hit of a speciality hot beverage. assuming operators still want to offer these options, what can they do to address their concerns about unhealthiness? "The first thing to do is define and clarify what their best beverage menu is," says McKenzie. "Look at what is going in each drink. For example, how much is going in of each element. If it has syrup, how is it measured?
Is it a free pour - which would alarm me - or is it one or two pumps? How much is in that pump? What sugar content does that relate to? How much milk is in it? Make sure the customer knows what is in their drink."
McKenzie doesn't agree that education only reaches the educated: "If you are an innovative operator and want to tell your customers the calorie content of what they are buying, you'd be bang on trend. That's the challenge for the hospitality trade right now - to turn it into a positive rather than something that is telling people what to do."
McKenzie's suggestion is that while the government procrastinates over its policies towards sugar and obesity, the industry could take a lead by helping decide at what level a drink should be deemed a treat. "That's something an operator could do and not cause offence, " he says.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Could the recent news story on sugary hot beverages even serve as a chance for the industry to evolve? McKenzie thinks so. "Sometimes the industry is a bit slow to move forward, but I hope that some good will come out of it."
Coffee shops - the responses
Costa "Costa takes the nutritional balance of our food and drink very seriously and we have already taken significant steps to reduce the sugar content of our ranges. We intend to continue improving the balance of our product offerings while maintaining the high quality and great taste our customers expect. This April we will be setting salt and sugar reduction targets for 2020."
Starbucks "Earlier this year we committed to reduce added sugar in our indulgent drinks by 25% by the end of 2020. We also offer a wide variety of lighter options, sugar-free syrups and sugarfree natural sweetener and we display all nutritional information in-store and online."
Caffè Nero "Caffè Nero is committed to reducing the sugar content in our drinks and we have already made changes to reduce the sugar content of some of our iced drinks for summer 2016 by over 10%. In addition, we offer sugar free syrups for many drinks, and all nutritional information is available on our website so that customers can make an informed choice."
Displaying calorie content
Nicola Close, chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health says: "[Action on Sugar's survey] highlights the need for more transparency on sugar content and the compulsory labelling of sugar content. Drinkers deserve to know how much sugar they are consuming."
In 2011, Starbucks became the first fast-food chain to put calorie content on its menus in the United Kingdom, and was followed by the likes of McDonald's and Harvester.
A 2015 study by John Hopkins University in America found that chain restaurants that voluntarily list calorie counts on their menus offer customers healthier foods - with menus clocking in at approximately 140 calories less per item. However, many high street stores do not make their nutritional information available online or in store, including Paul, Patisserie Valerie, AMT, Ben's Cookies, Millie's, Caffè Ritazza, Camden Food Co, Delice de France and Burger King.
In 2013, the government rolled out a colour-coded system across major retailers, signifying how much fat, salt and sugar and how many calories are in each product.
In January 2016, a Royal Society for Public Health policy paper suggested labels should be added to food and drink to show how much activity would be needed to burn off the calories consumed. It argued people underestimate the time it takes to exercise off calories in everyday products. A mocha coffee containing 290 calories takes 53 minutes to walk off and a blueberry muffin takes 48 minutes.
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