New soft drinks categories arise from Battle over school lunches in Australia

Authorities continue to assert that obesity in Australia, including childhood obesity, is now amongst the highest in the world. Soft drinks, and particularly carbonated soft drinks, have come under intense scrutiny regarding their role in the causes of obesity.

The healthiness (or lack thereof) of many soft drinks is regularly in the news. Parents are receiving warnings that many soft drinks are high in sugar, and that consumption by children may require parental control and restriction.

Grading the drinks in schools

Government-run schools in Australia now operate under regulations and guidelines regarding the stocking of products in school cafeterias and food and drink products that can be brought to school in lunchboxes. The general system is a red, amber and green coding.

Red signifies total banning of the product and under the system this includes any drink that contains more than 300kJ per serving, or more than 100mg of sodium per serving, where a serving is defined as the unit container in which the product is presented for sale. This has effectively resulted in all standard carbohydrates being banned from government school cafeterias. An amber classification carries a caution usually worded “select carefully”.

Green-classified soft drinks include water, 99% fruit juices (200ml servings or less), high-fibre fruit juices (250ml servings or less) and 99% fruit juice crushed ice frozen juice drinks (200ml servings or less). Some non-government schools have adopted these guidelines, although certain reports have suggested that several private schools are now a little more relaxed.

Regular carbonates have been one of the most notable victims of the revised food and drink policies in schools. This has left a void that is being at least partially filled by unfrozen nectars. Portion-serve packaging is central to this growth, including both aseptic semi-rigid packaging and PET bottles. Pack sizes are generally 250ml, but some variations do exist.

The acceptability of unfrozen nectars in schools’ healthy eating programmes has resulted in quite strong growth for these products. Whereas growth in total fruit/vegetable juice is almost static, unfrozen nectars achieved 4% volume growth in 2009. Whilst 100% juice is also acceptable in the school programme, the undoubted preference is for unfrozen nectars. This is due to a combination of reasons including cost and child preference.

New products form manufacturers’ response

The battle for the school lunchbox and for school cafeteria endorsement has also spawned a wave of new products and new sizes.

Several recent introductions of carbonated fruit/vegetable juice products signal a potential wave of similar launches; however, rather than gain ready approval and acceptance as carbonates replacements, these products are gathering a fair degree of criticism centred mainly around sugar content, but also because in most cases the juice content is apple or pear juice with low fibre content.

Children from quite an early age are being given lessons on the fundamentals of sound nutrition, and school policy now extends to advising parents on what may not be brought to school in lunchboxes.

With systems now firmly entrenched regarding the acceptance of products for sale in school cafeterias, there is something of a battle to develop products that satisfy the acceptance criteria but also offer enhanced child appeal through design and presentation.

The potential outcome of schools’ healthy eating programmes is a generation being actively steered away from carbonates. This is further underlined by the fact that carbonates itself has imposed voluntary restrictions on marketing to children. In some respects, the base has been reset by the banning of standard carbonates in school cafeterias; however, in all likelihood, there is still a second wave yet to hit.

Teenagers have, in the past, been large consumers of carbonates. Across the next five years there will be a generation of school-going children moving through schools’ healthy eating programmes and into their teenage years. It is yet to be seen whether the lessons and restrictions introduced during their childhood years will transpose into modified behaviour in their teenage years and beyond.

Sugar content is a major concern

The debate around the impact of sugar in soft drinks is real and will lead to continuing searches by manufacturers for new products that meet these challenges and the latest criteria. The sugar debate will continue across the coming years and will most likely intensify. So far, carbonated juice drinks have not gained the endorsement they may have been expecting.

With bottled water, issues are being raised regarding the sugar content of both flavoured bottled water and functional bottled water. As with other soft drinks categories where sugar content is raised as a concern, there are usually one or more manufacturers that are quick to respond with low- or no-sugar versions.

Over the next few years, there will undoubtedly be further new product development emphasis placed on soft drinks products that meet the challenges of current nutritional advice from the government and other authorities. At least some of this emphasis will be devoted to developing soft drinks that meet the guidelines and that appeal to children.

This motivation is sure to spread to other areas of the world as well where it has not already done so. In the US, carbonates and other sugar-sweetened drinks were reduced in schools starting in 2006 by a voluntary industry-wide initiative.

A similar move was mandated by the government of Mexico in May 2010. Earlier this year, PepsiCo Inc pledged to eliminate full calorie carbonates in schools across the globe by 2012.

The prevailing opinion about what drinks children should be exposed to in schools is changing, and successful manufacturers will offset the loss of carbonates sales with newer, healthier drinks in smaller sizes for child consumption.

The reduction of carbonates in schools is creating a large, established audience looking for drinks, and plenty of empty space in school vending machines and cafeterias. Those who are slow to react may find themselves upstaged by smaller competitors.