Trend toward low-cal drinks not enough to curb intake, says Conference Board

OTTAWA – A top economic research organization says Canada’s beverage industry will have to do more than rely on recent trends to reach its target for reducing the calories people consume through soft drinks and similar products amid concerns over obesity rates.

The Conference Board of Canada says the daily consumption of calories through non-alcoholic and non-dairy beverages, not including coffee and tea, dropped by 20 per cent per capita between 2004 and 2014, largely because of the marketing of low-calorie options.

The industry wants to reduce caloric intake from its products by a further 20 per cent by 2025, and asked the conference board to monitor its progress as a third-party verifier.

But the board says consumer trends alone will only get the Canadian Beverage Association about halfway to its target under what it calls a balance calories initiative.

In 2014, Canadians consumed an average 142.5 calories a day from beverages such as energy drinks, juice, soft drinks and even bottled water, the board said.

The Canadian Obesity Network at one time raised concerns about the effects of sugary beverage consumption on obesity rates and obesity-related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

However, the network acknowledged Monday that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, has been declining and is just one among a range of factors linked to obesity.

“Many people believe that the amount of fat in your body is only determined by what you eat and how much you exercise,” the network said in an email.

“But the reality is that obesity is a complex illness caused by a number of different factors, including your environment, genes, emotional health, lack of sleep, medical problems or even some medications you may be on.”

Still, if the trend toward reduced consumption of calorie-laden drinks is to change further, the beverage industry will have to do much more, said the conference board.

“Ensuring that Canadians attain a healthy weight will require a multi-sector approach, including voluntary industry initiatives,” said Michael Bloom, the board’s vice-president, industry and business strategy.

“Although only a small and declining portion of daily calories consumed by Canadians is from refreshments beverages, the percentage of Canadian adults who are overweight continues to rise.”

While the report makes no specific recommendations for how caloric intake can be reduced, it points to several measures that have had an impact in shifting trends.

They include the introduction of more low-calorie beverage products, smaller packaging, clearer labelling of beverages for calorie content, limiting distribution of high-calorie offerings in schools and restricting marketing aimed at children.

Meantime, the federal government has weighed the pros and cons of a tax on sugary drinks as a financial deterrent aimed at curbing obesity rates.

During pre-budget consultations prior to the introduction of the Liberal government’s first budget in March, the Heart and Stroke Foundation urged Ottawa to impose a tax of five cents per 100 millilitres on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The foundation argued that such a levy would be a sustainable source of tax revenue that would generate $1.8 billion annually for the federal treasury.

In Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s spring budget, the Trudeau government pledged to help “families make better food choices” by adding more details on food labels about sugars and artificial dyes in processed products. It made no mention of imposing taxes on sugary or fatty foods and beverages.

But Morneau’s office requested an internal analysis last winter to explore the “issues and impacts in respect of a potential tax on soft drinks,” according to a Jan. 29 briefing note prepared for the minister and later obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The conference board made no mention of a soft drink tax in its report, which was to be released Monday.