Singapore’s introduction of its new sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) labelling system Nutri-Grade has received a lukewarm response from consumers, with 68% of public sentiment remaining ‘neutral’ or ‘unsure’ about the policy.
The Nutri-Grade nutrient label will have four different grades: ‘A’ (dark green), ‘B’ (light green), ‘C’ (yellow) and ‘D’ (red), going from lowest to highest sugar an saturated fat content. It will be mandatory for Grade C and Grade D beverages.
These new regulations will formally be published at the end of 2020, upon which F&B manufacturers will be given one year to make the necessary transitions.
According to new research by intelligence firm Meltwater, although 20% of public sentiment so far has been positive as opposed to 12% negative based on insights collected from international news and social media, an overwhelming 68% has remained ‘neutral’, or unsure about the move.
Most of the positive feedback has been based on the belief that Nutri-Grade will encourage healthier food choices locally, as it is expected to ‘be effective in prompting consumers to think about their sugar intake every time they are purchasing sweetened beverages’.
However, not everyone shared this belief, with most negative feedback centred around the effectiveness of Nutri-Grade to achieve this goal, especially in terms of making the labels clear for consumers.
Another lingering issue was they system’s supposed failure to handle the consumption of freshly prepared drinks, which are very popular in Singapore.
That said, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong has already announced that steps are being taken to expand Nutri-Grade to cover these drinks as well.
“One of the key issues is that the Nutri-Grade labelling does not address the consumption of freshly prepared beverages that are heavily consumed as well,” said Meltwater.
“[This is in addition to worries about] the fact that labels can sometimes be misleading or confusing.”
One of the comments cited along this line was that: “Having that label doesn’t automatically mean [that the drink] is healthy, but some people may see it and assume that it is without some knowledge of food and nutrition.”
A similar concern was previously voiced by trade association Food Industry Asia (FIA), saying that this move would likely confuse consumers or lead to them making unhealthy choices instead.
“[The implementation of Nutri-Grade will mean] sudden shift in sugar thresholds [could] potentially lead to consumers rejecting [reformulated] products [and opting] for alternatives that are equal or higher in sugar content,” said FIA Executive Director Matt Kovac.
“[Making it mandatory] for Grade C and D beverages may overwhelm consumers and lead to confusion when making food and beverage choices, e.g. categorising some full-fat milk as Grade C [can] create a negative perception among consumers although scientific studies have demonstrated the benefits of full-fat dairy consumption.”
That said, academics such as those from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have expressed support for a mandatory labelling system, calling it ‘practicable’.
“While voluntary labelling schemes are more palatable to industry stakeholders and less likely to be lobbied, their uptake is typically slow, as demonstrated in New Zealand where only 5% of products carry the Health Star Ratings,” said the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health in a formal statement regarding SSB labelling.
“Mandatory warning label policies tend to face high levels of industry opposition, based on preliminary evidence from Canada and Chile and the experience of California and other states in the US.
“Considering these, mandatory FOP nutrition labelling is a practicable policy decision.”
All in all, these contrasting doubts all together are perhaps the reason that most of the reactions so far have been ‘neutral’, as the public is likely reserving judgement until Nutri-Grade is formally enforced and clearer results are seen.
Nutri-Grade vs sugar taxation
Nonethless, Nutri-Grade has more or less been accepted as a preferred option to sugar taxation thus far.
“[It appears that this sugar consumption reduction approach would be preferred by consumers] rather than taxing them into it,” Mahmood said.
“While the intent of a sugar tax is to reduce the consumption of processed sugar due to public health concerns, there seems to be significant public disapproval. The sentiment is likely due to the fact that taxing sugar is associated with an increased cost of living.”
FIA had also described sugar taxes as an option that ‘might be viewed as discriminatory in nature’, saying that results from other countries thus far have been uncertain, so ‘such a decision should not be made based on such ambiguity’.
Other Singapore F&B companies had previously also called such taxes ‘draconian’.