SINGAPORE: As part of the war on diabetes, a new colour-coded “front-of-pack” nutrition label will be made mandatory for pre-packaged beverages that are high in sugar, announced the Health Ministry on Thursday (Oct 10).
A total ban on advertising will also be imposed on beverages that are deemed the most unhealthy and graded the lowest on the nutrition label.
The ban will apply across all local mass media platforms, including broadcast, print, outdoor advertising and online channels such as social media websites.
In other countries, similar advertising regulations to date have been limited to media channels and time-belts targeted at children.
The move will "greatly reduce" consumers' exposure to such advertisements, said Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong.
Each beverage will be assigned a summary grade based on its nutritional quality, where sugar content will be the main but not the only determinant. Factors like the amount of fat and trans-fat in the drink will also be taken into account.
The label will apply to all pre-packaged sugar-sweetened beverages, including soft drinks, energy drinks, juices, malted drinks, flavoured milk and cultured milk drinks.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said it aims to help consumers identify less healthy beverages and to make more informed choices with the new nutrition label.
“It also encourages manufacturers to reformulate sugar-sweetened beverage products,” the ministry said.
The thresholds for how the drinks will be graded have yet to be decided. The ministry said it will consult healthcare experts on the matter.
Over the next few months, the ministry and the Health Promotion Board (HPB) will conduct consumer focus group discussions on the design of the label, as well as gather feedback from beverage manufacturers and the advertising industry on how the two measures can be implemented.
Details will be announced in the first half of 2020.
Speaking to reporters at the Singapore Health and Biomedical Congress on Thursday, Mr Tong said: "As a rough indication, you look around the world between announcement and implementation for this kind of similar-type measures, you'll find anything between one to four years."
"I think we do want to see what it takes, and work with the industry on it," he added, stressing that the measures need to be sustainable.
Mr Tong said the authorities also did not want to impose a timeline on manufacturers and the advertising industry in case they could not deliver on targets.
"But at the same time, we are not relaxing so that they can take their time. We want to find an equilibrium," he said.
Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said evidence from other countries such as Chile and France have shown that such labels work in guiding consumers towards healthier products.
"However, it is important to highlight that in rolling out this front-of-pack label, there is a need to educate the public on how to interpret these labels, and to remind them not to compare across food categories," added Dr Teo.
"For example, a fruit juice that scores a D grade cannot be compared to a soft drink that scores a B grade."
OTHER MEASURES ON THE TABLE
These measures come after an eight-week long public consultation held by MOH and HPB between December 2018 and January 2019, with members of the public, health professionals, academia and representatives from beverage manufacturers and the advertising industry.
A total of 84 per cent of 4,000 respondents supported mandatory front-of-label packaging, and 71 per cent supported the regulation of advertising, MOH said.
Just 65 per cent supported a tax to encourage manufacturers to reformulate and reduce the sugar level in their drinks, and 48 per cent called for a ban on the sale of beverages that are higher in sugar.
These last two options are still on the table, although they are “more complex measures that require further study”, MOH said.
"This is still on the agenda and we intend to study this more carefully," said Mr Tong. "We want to find measures that are, in the long term, sustainable that not just shapes market consumption behaviour but also on the supply side, to drive reformulation."
SINGAPOREANS STILL CONSUMING TOO MUCH SUGAR
According to the ministry, Singaporeans consume 12 teaspoons of sugar daily, and more than half of this comes from sugar-sweetened beverages, of which 64 per cent are pre-packaged. This is above the World Health Organization’s recommendation of five to 10 teaspoons of free sugars per day.
The average sugar content of such beverages also has not declined in the past 10 years, and remains high at five teaspoons per 250ml, MOH said.
Ms Izabela Kerner, president of the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, said the daily intake of free sugars should not exceed 10 per cent of total energy intake, which translates to nine and 11 teaspoons of sugar per day for an average Singaporean female and male respectively.
On the Government's new measures targeting pre-packaged drinks, Ms Kerner noted that freshly prepared or made-to-order drinks options like bubble tea are also popular, especially among younger Singaporeans.
“Consumers might not even be aware of the high sugar content in bubble teas as there is no clear nutritional information to make informed choices. Therefore, public education and awareness are crucial to drive behaviour change towards reduction in sugar intake,” she said.
"The objective is sugar, in whatever form it is," said Mr Tong.
"It's just that (sugar-sweetened drinks) are the lowest hanging fruit in the sense that it has the largest consumption. It is also easier to manage the process. When you make freshly made drinks and other dispensers, it's harder to control and harder to regulate."
Currently, HPB’s Healthier Choice symbol appears on 2,600 different food products, including beverages, convenience meals and breakfast cereals. Beverages that contain about three teaspoons of sugar per 250ml are eligible to carry the symbol.
Deputy CEO of Pokka International Daniel Teo said more than 50 per cent of its products are within HPB’s Healthier Choice range.
“As for the other products, we continue to have our R&D team review them to reformulate where possible. Some are more challenging as in natural fruit sugars that is found in all juices from all brands,” he said.
Mr Teo added that Pokka does not have “severe concerns” because most of its products have the Healthier Choice symbol, and for those that do not, he does not believe they will fall in the worst grade of the new labelling scheme.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech in 2017, described diabetes as a “very serious” problem.
According to Dr Kevin Tan, president of Diabetes Singapore, 11 per cent of Singaporeans aged 18 to 69 have diabetes, and 14 per cent of Singaporeans in the same age group have pre-diabetes.
He said “not all sugar consumption can be regulated”, and added that “concurrent education”, in line with MOH’s efforts, would help the public to recognise and reduce sugars in freshly prepared drinks and food as well.
Mr Tong said educating consumers with nutrition information is a "far better" way to change consumer behaviour, compared to a ban on higher-sugar drinks, which he described as "draconian".
"These (measures) is one piece of the puzzle. The overall education continues unabated, and that's exactly what we need to do very much right now, in terms of education."