A decade later, the number had risen to 25 teaspoons per day. A further decade plus has passed and, despite various campaigns and initiatives to tackle the nation’s excessive sugar intake, is currently around 28 teaspoons – more than four times the WHO’s recommended amount.
Thais with a sweet tooth, especially diehard fans of pearl milk tea, are reeling from the staggering figures released earlier this month by the Foundation for Consumers that reveal a long list of bubble tea brands serving drinks containing more than the WHO’s recommended sugar level. Of the 25 brands that were tested, 23 were found to be serving beverages that exceeded the threshold. All 25 brands underwent laboratory testing for calories and preservatives like sorbic acid and benzoic acid. The worst offender contained a staggering 18.5 teaspoons of sugar – more than three days’ worth in one go.
Thanit Vinitchagoon, dietitian at the Institute of Nutrition under Mahidol University, says there are various factors that contribute to Thailand’s sugar addiction. Among them is a food environment that has become more diverse.
The recent report on sugar in bubble tea is a wake-up call that will hopefully give Thais second thoughts the next time they think of ordering one. But according to Thanit, this is far from the only area of concern when it comes to sugar consumption in the country.
“We can’t just demonise a particular kind of food as the sole culprit,” he explained. “Instead, it’s important to look at the overall picture as to how people consume sugar, fats, sodium and all that. Sugary drinks tend to be looked at as particularly problematic in part because they’re liquid. Unlike solid food, drinks don’t make people full, which means they can be quickly and continually consumed, sending a lot of sugar into the body.”
In 2017, Thailand implemented a new excise tax on drinks with sugar content in an effort to put pressure on manufacturers to cut the amount of sugar they put in their products. A further tax expected to be imposed in October. However, Thanit is of the opinion that it’s hard to be sure whether this will be effective.
“When it comes to the efficiency of excise taxes on sugary drinks, two different sectors need to be taken into consideration,” he said. “For those whose purchasing power is heavily influenced by price, then it might affect how they choose their products. But for consumers for whom price is not a factor, taxes are unlikely to affect them as much. They probably won’t care too much if the price of their favourite beverage rises by, say, B5.”
Telling consumers to cut their sugar intake, said Thanit, ignores the complexity of the issue. Of course, state support is paramount but Thanit believes that only campaigns which are based on positive reinforcement ideology will work, by introducing consumers to healthier choices of foods but letting them decide. This way they will feel encouraged towards behavioural adjustment instead of threatened.
Sugar tax pushes innovation
Thailand’s beverage industry plans to become more innovative with products as the second phase of the excise tax on sugary drinks comes into force. A new alternative sweetener and products with less sugar may be introduced, reformulating existing ingredients for them to be healthier or less sweet.
Sugary drinks subject to the tax are carbonated soft drinks, energy and electrolyte drinks, fruit and vegetable juices and sweetening agents. From October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2021, sugary beverages including carbonated soft drinks, ready-to-drink green tea, coffee, energy drinks and fruit juice will be taxed at a higher rate under the new excise tax structure.
A source from Thailand’s beverage industry who requested anonymity said with the second round of the excise tax on the horizon, healthy beverage alternatives are expected to be introduced in the fourth quarter.
Apart from new formulas, several beverage manufacturers are reformulating existing beverages, while some companies are exploring business opportunities in other healthier product sectors to keep their sales growth.
“In addition to carbonated soft drinks, which recently announced higher prices, fruit juice companies are considering adjusting prices because of higher production costs,” said the source.
Ekkapol Pongsathaporn, managing director of Tipco Foods, the maker of fruit juice, said the company has been preparing for the last two years by creating more healthy product options. “We’ve prepared several measures to cope with the government’s measures, including new product choices and the reformulation of existing items or price hikes, which will be reconsidered next year,” Ekkapol said.
Kanya Dilokruengchai, managing director of World Food International Co, the distributor of M-Joy mixed fruit juice, said the company has already adjusted all product formulas. “Following formula adjustments, consumers’ response remains positive,” said Ms Kanya. “We still expect to be able to maintain our sales at B520 million, on par with last year.”
Nongnuch Buranasetkul, president of Oishi Group, said the company has gradually adjusted sugar levels of Oishi green tea since last year. The company also launched Oishi gold sugar-free green tea to the market. “Healthy drinks have been available in the market for a long time, but have not received a sufficient response from consumers,” Nongnuch said. “Healthy product lines draw a better response from consumers when they are better educated and have a better understanding.”
Prayoth Benyasut, deputy director-general of the Internal Trade Department, said makers of carbonated soft drinks, fruit and vegetable juices do not need to ask for prior approval from the Internal Trade Department for a price hike because they are not on the state price control list. They are required to inform the department once they have adjusted their prices.
“The department’s stated role is to supervise the adequacy of products and prevent any hoarding by business operators to the extent that there is shortage,” he said. “For such drinks, there is unlikely to be any shortages in the market.”
– Pitsinee Jitpleecheep, Phusadee Arunmas and Arusa Pisuthipan