War on sugar: Pre-packaged drinks to be graded A to D from end-2021
As part of war against diabetes, those graded D for high sugar or fat content can no longer be advertised
In trying to cut down on sugary beverages, Mr Dadi Santosh, 23, thought he had gone for a healthy choice. But the university student was shocked when a friend told him that his orange juice was just as bad.
"People assume fruit juice is a healthier drink, but it actually has a lot of sugar," he told The New Paper, adding that he now actively looks for zero- or low-sugar options and checks the nutritional facts whenever he can.
Mr Santosh's quest for a healthier lifestyle will be made easier from end-2021, when manufacturers must put nutrition labels on pre-packaged, non-alcoholic drinks with high sugar or saturated fat content.
These drinks will be given a colour-coded grade on a scale of A to D. Those with a D, the unhealthiest, cannot be advertised on media platforms, even as part of a family of products.
Advertising at points of sale will be allowed, but the D-grade must be shown clearly. Brand advertising will still be allowed.
The new regulations, which will be published at year-end, are part of the Government's efforts to win the war against diabetes.
The measures will in time be extended to freshly made drinks such as bubble tea and freshly squeezed juice, but will apply only to large chains for a start.
During the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong said the nutrition label and advertising ban are not meant to deprive Singaporeans of their favourite drinks.
"All these initiatives are part of a longer-term approach to reshape consumer behaviour towards healthier living, not just in the choices that they make but in consumption," he told Parliament.
"We want to provide Singaporeans with the right information to make healthy choices, and encourage companies to reformulate products and create healthier options."
Called Nutri-Grade, the standardised nutrition label gives a quick, at-a-glance summary of the nutritional quality of the drink and indicates the sugar level as a percentage of the total volume, allowing consumers to compare different products.
It must be displayed on the front of the packaging and at points of sale, such as e-commerce websites, vending machines and drink fountains.
The grades will apply to all pre-packaged drinks, but the labels are mandatory only for drinks with C or D grade and voluntary for those graded A or B.
The Health Promotion Board's (HPB) Healthier Choice Symbol guidelines will be revised to align with the new grading system, with only drinks graded A or B being eligible.
Mr Tong said companies will have almost two years to reformulate their products if they start today.
About 70 per cent of pre-packaged drinks sold here will be affected by mandatory labelling, while 20 per cent are D-grade and cannot be advertised.
To encourage people to drink water, the Government is working to increase the number of public water dispensers islandwide. By mid-year, they will be available at hawker centres and more bus and MRT stations.
Mr Samuel Koh, group CEO (designate) at Yeo Hiap Seng, said the two-year runway until the new regulations kick in is sufficient.
A significant part of its products will fall into A and B grades in future, and Mr Koh expects the impact on the company's bottom line to be muted.
Coca-Cola Singapore also foresees minimal impact on business but questions "the effectiveness of any measure that only applies to sugar in drinks but not to other foods that may have the same amount of sugar or more".
Pokka Group's chief commercial officer Daniel Teo said he was encouraged that freshly prepared drinks are also on the authorities' radar.
"If it is just the ready-to-drink sector alone, people will just switch to another category of sweet drinks," he said.
Professor Rob van Dam from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said scientific evidence shows that drinking too many sugar-sweetened drinks leads to more weight gain and a higher risk of diabetes.
There is also some evidence from Chile that introducing a warning label for sugar reduces consumption substantially.
Too much saturated fat raises the level of bad cholesterol, which can also increase the risk of diabetes, he said.
"Often with diabetes, we think about it only as a sugar disease... but the quality of the fat in a diet is also important."
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