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Coca-Cola’s ‘health by stealth’ wheeze is sneaky. But if it works so be it

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Gaby Hinsliff
Cake: ‘I baked a plum cake and forgot to put the sugar in. But surprisingly, plates were licked clean. It tasted fine, if a little drier than usual.’ © The Guardian ‘I baked a plum cake and forgot to put the sugar in. But surprisingly, plates were licked clean. It tasted fine, if a little drier than usual.’

It had been a long day. I was knackered, and frankly not concentrating. Which is how I managed recently to bake a plum cake and forget to put the sugar in. The damn thing was already cooked and cooling by the time the penny dropped, so there was little option but to keep quiet and dish it up. But surprisingly, plates were licked clean. It tasted fine, if a little drier than usual. And yes, there is a point to this tedious domestic mishap, which is that Coca-Cola just did something similar to millions of its customers, in a move that has interesting implications for the debate over public health and the nanny state.

Related: Sugar is the ‘alcohol of the child’, yet we let it dominate the breakfast table | Robert Lustig

The soft drinks giant started by silently reducing the calories in Sprite. People didn’t seem to mind, so two weeks ago it secretly cut the sugar in Fanta by a third, and again sales held perfectly steady. So much for all the outraged spluttering over government plans to introduce a levy on sugary drinks next year – the reason Coca-Cola changed its recipes, since both drinks will now escape the tax – and how it would ruin much-loved brands. People literally didn’t notice.

There is admittedly something mildly disconcerting about the concept of “health by stealth” – although health is, in this case, a relative term. The acid in fizzy drinks is still no friend to teeth, and swapping sugar for other sweeteners does nothing to discourage the craving for sweetness. Who knows? In a few years we may all be panicking instead about some unforeseen side-effect of stevia, the natural plant-based sweetener substituted in Sprite. But it remains a rare example of a company fooling its customers into better choices, not worse ones – for once. They’re treating us like children. This is, after all, the equivalent of smuggling hated vegetables into pasta sauce and brazenly liquidising the evidence. But then, there’s nothing like a public health intervention for provoking a national tantrum.

Andy Burnham was accused of waging war on parents only four years ago for promising that a future Labour government would act to reduce sugar in cereals such as Frosties. Last year, when George Osborne finally unveiled plans for a tax on sweetened drinks, libertarian Tories were outraged.

Yet in a few years’ time we’ll surely look back and wonder what the fuss was about, for such is the way of health and safety interventions, from the ban on smoking in public places to the introduction of compulsory seatbelts. Outrage turns to grudging acceptance, before mellowing into surprise that things were ever any different.

If you announce you’re lowering fat, sugar or salt, then consumers glumly assume the result will be thin and joyless

It seems genuinely astonishing now that until 31 people died in the King’s Cross station fire in 1987, which was started by a dropped cigarette, nobody seemed to think smoking on the tube was a problem. My son boggles at the idea that back in the 1970s, kids would travel piled on top of each other in the backseat of a car or rolling around in the boot. But it still requires political courage to get past the initial wall of resistance, which is constructed of corporate inertia plus kneejerk irritation among consumers at being told what to do. Legislation can obviously overcome the former, but what’s less often noted is that it can also prompt imaginative responses to the latter.

Once, food manufacturers who made their products healthier would shout it from the rooftops, but increasingly they’re learning to do it on the sly. If you announce that you’re lowering fat, sugar or salt then consumers glumly assume the result will be thin and joyless; since so much of eating is about anticipation, that may be exactly how it tastes to them. But do it quietly and – as any slapdash home cook will know – you can get away with murder. Even in baking, which does depend on measuring ingredients accurately, it’s the ratio of fat to flour and liquids that seems crucial to the chemistry, rather than the sugar. A diabetic friend was advised by nurses that most recipes will still work even if you halve the sugar – which is roughly what I did by accident, since the plum cake recipe I screwed up still contained honey, fruit and golden syrup – at least so long as you don’t tell. Sneaky?

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