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Sugar: Not so innocent after all?

2013 saw a slew of content relating to the reportedly harmful effects of excessive sugar consumption on health, not least Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar. Dr Robert Lustig’s book compared the addictive qualities of sugar to cocaine and heroin and the British Medical Journal published several studies on the subject. Action on Sugar, a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health, including Dr Lustig, launched in January 2014 and propelled the issue into the mainstream media with articles featuring in the majority of UK national titles.

The pressure group released a report laced with headline-grabbing claims that “sugar is the new tobacco” and called on the UK government to compel major manufacturers to reduce the large amounts of “excessive” sugar added to foods and soft drinks. Timed just after a period of festive excess and the sensational nature of its assertions helped to generate a 120% increase in content relating to the subject area in January (01-27 January inclusive) compared to November. Action on Sugar sparked responses by the NHS and Department of Health, among others.

An interesting offshoot from the report’s publication was the subsequent comments by Susan Jebb, head of diet and obesity research at the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research. She told The Sunday Times that she believed fruit juice should be removed from the recommended list of five-a-day portions of fruit or vegetables . Cambridge-based Jebb suggested that fruit juice often contains as much sugar as many carbonated soft drinks. This intervention helped prolong the lifecycle of the issue and focused the reputational risk on fruit juice and smoothie manufacturers such as Innocent, which is owned by Coca Cola, Tropicana, which is owned by PepsiCo, Del Monte and Princes among others.

The issue for these companies and their brands is the apparent discrepancy between their positioning and the apparent reality that their drinks are packed full of harmful sugar. Tropicana’s website highlights that its products provide “Healthy benefits for all”, while Innocent’s states that “we’re here to make it easy for people to do themselves some good”. Content tracked by alva’s reputation measurement system relating to Innocent and health issues increased 152% from November to January. This is the essence of a reputational risk as described by the Harvard Business Review in its presentation of a “Reputation-reality gap ”:

Reputation is distinct from the actual character or behavior of the company and may be better or worse. When the reputation of a company is more positive than its underlying reality, this gap poses a substantial risk. Eventually, the failure of a firm to live up to its billing will be revealed, and its reputation will decline until it more closely matches the reality.

For Innocent and other fruit juice and smoothie manufacturers, this may just be a temporary blip in sentiment. Data from the research company Mintel found 34% of consumers were concerned about the amount of sugar contained within fruit juices, but “a striking 76%” believed juice and smoothies to be healthy. The real reputational risk will be if these proportions begin to change and indeed if the government does remove fruit juice from its five a day guidance. Interestingly, the lion’s share of the increase in content (402%) relating to Innocent and health issues came from Facebook, suggesting that it is something that has elicited public interest.

Whether anyone stands to gain reputationally from the issue is another matter. It could be argued that the media and public consciousness can only deal with a limited amount of information at any given time. Is health reporting in the UK media a zero sum game? If sugar is the new evil, does that mean that the traditional “enemies” of food manufacturers providing high levels of saturated fat will become more sanitised as a result? While unlikely, this could provide these companies’ reputations with a welcome respite as the attention focuses elsewhere.




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