Healthy bubble tea? Shops tweak recipes ahead of Nutri-Grade label deadline in Dec
Bubble tea operators are putting the finishing touches on their reformulated drinks and menus as the deadline for the roll-out of a mandatory nutrition labelling scheme for freshly prepared beverages draws near.
By Dec 30, food and beverage outlets selling freshly prepared drinks such as juices, smoothies, bubble tea, and coffee, will have to carry Nutri-Grade labels on their physical and online menus. Drink toppings such as pearls, jellies, ice cream and whipped cream must be labelled with a declaration of their sugar content. The Nutri-Grade mark for pre-packed beverages kicked in from Dec 30, 2022.
The Nutri-Grade system comprises colour-coded grades from A to D, with D containing the highest sugar and/or saturated fat content. Drinks that are graded D are not allowed to be advertised.
So far, only one out of five bubble tea chains that The Sunday Times spoke to has rolled out the nutrition labelling on its menus.
Two out of five of the operators said that the bulk of their drinks are expected to be labelled B and C, while one is in a last-minute rush to tweak its recipes in a bid to reduce the number of drinks graded D.
For drinks operators that offer customisable options for their beverages – like bubble tea chains that give customers the choice of a sugar level between 0 per cent and 100 per cent – a drink’s Nutri-Grade rating will be based on the highest sugar content offered, which is 100 per cent sugar.
In doing so, consumers will be advised on the maximum amount of sugar they could potentially consume and can make more informed choices, said the Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Board in response to industry feedback in February.
The authorities also hope the industry would be encouraged to reduce the maximum amount of sugar and saturated fat in the drinks.
For operators who do not offer a range of customisation options for their drinks, a beverage’s Nutri-Grade rating is based on the default preparation.
LiHo, which has 88 outlets islandwide, has implemented the Nutri-Grade labels on its menus since the second quarter of 2023. Out of its 27 drinks, three are rated B, 12 are rated C, and 12 are rated D.
Ms Aqilah Aziz, senior marketing executive at LiHo parent company Royal T Group, said that some health-conscious customers have switched to drinks in the lower-sugar grades with the roll-out of the Nutri-Grade ratings for freshly prepared drinks.
LiHo is also planning to replace its current menu with reformulated drinks by the second week of December. With the new menu of 41 drinks, there will be seven drinks in the D category, 25 labelled C, and nine rated B.
“We went through a round of reformulation to ensure that most of our drinks are not in the D category because we would face a lot of restrictions in promotions… We reduced the sugar content of our drinks’ sugar levels, and cut sugar out from raw ingredients,” said Ms Aqilah.
Heytea Singapore brand director Jonathan Chan said the brand is still in the midst of reformulation, and the gradings for its drinks are still being finalised.
The brand is making a concerted push to bring its most sugary drinks in the D grade down to at least a C grade.
Heytea has five outlets across Singapore, and about 30 drinks on its menu.
Many of its drinks also come with standard toppings, which are counted towards the drink’s Nutri-Grade rating. For example, its Very Grape Crystal drink contains Kyoho grapes and crystal pudding.
“We usually recommend toppings that pair well with the drink itself, and because of that, reformulation is tough… If we take away the topping, can we fulfil the consumer experience that we hold dear to? That’s something we still have to toy with,” said Mr Chan.
PlayMade senior marketing manager Stephanie Soo said that the brand has completed its reformulation, and is planning to bring out the menu with Nutri-Grade labels before the deadline, though she did not specify when.
Most of PlayMade’s drinks will be in the B and C grade, with some rated A.
“Besides adjusting our sugar levels, we also offer alternatives like sugar substitutes to ensure we can retain as much of our tea taste that customers have been enjoying,” added Ms Soo.
The brand has more than 40 drinks on its menu, and will have 22 outlets by December.
But some bubble tea chains like Each-a-Cup and Gong Cha have opted to make only minor tweaks to their recipes, in order to preserve the taste that their consumers are familiar with.
They also maintain that customers already have the choice of healthier beverages, by opting for lower sugar levels.
Each-a-Cup business development manager Ivan Chua said that most of the brand’s more than 115 drinks will be in the C and D categories.
It will not be feasible to reduce the sugar content of the drinks’ sugar levels to meet healthier Nutri-Grade ratings as the change would be too drastic, said Mr Chua.
“For example, a 100 per cent sugar level is probably about 30g of sugar, we can’t cut it all the way to 15g for instance,” he said, adding that the sugar content for the other sugar levels like 70 per cent, 50 per cent and 20 per cent will all be impacted if changes were to be made for one.
“That could mean a drink with 50 per cent sugar level will taste like that of 20 per cent sugar level or even as though there’s no sugar added,” said Mr Chua, adding that consumers would not be used to it.
Gong Cha Asia-Pacific chief executive Danny Lee concurred, saying that major reformulation could completely alter the taste of a drink.
The brand only made slight modifications to a few of its sweetest drinks.
Of its menu of some 30 beverages, there are three Ds, nine Bs, and the rest are Cs.
“There are two kinds of people. Some are very serious about their nutrition and would not even come to a bubble tea store. So if you have bubble tea, you already know that it’s an indulgence, and you have the chance to reduce the sugar level to that of your choice,” said Mr Lee, adding that seven in 10 of Gong Cha’s customers choose sugar levels of 50 per cent or below.