Home >Opinion >Are fruit drinks healthier than colas?

Beverage manufacturers are tripping over themselves to launch aerated fruit-based drinks. Earlier this week, PepsiCo (India) Holdings Ltd announced the extension of its mango drink Slice as a fizzy drink and also shared plans to bring in new carbonated variants under the brand.

In February, Coca-Cola India Pvt. Ltd said that it will launch fruit juice versions of Sprite and Limca in the first half of this year. A year ago, Parle Agro Pvt. Ltd launched the fizzy version of Frooti and is now banking on the sparkling beverage to fuel its growth. Even Ramesh Chauhan, the founder of brands like Thums Up and Gold Spot who had sold his brands to Coca-Cola, re-entered the market after a gap of 23 years in 2016 with an aerated fruit-based drink, Bisleri Pop.

What’s causing this frenzy?

One reason could be that consumers regard anything with fruits or natural ingredients in it to be healthier than just regular carbonated drinks like Pepsi or Coke which are made up of artificial flavours. So it gives the consumer the best of both fruit and fizz. Additionally, it helps that this is in line with the prime minister’s request. About four years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged cola manufacturers to introduce natural fruit juice in their aerated beverages in the hopes of increasing the fruit sales of Indian farmers.

What has sweetened the deal is the fact that it also makes for good business.

Carbonated beverages with fruit juice were notified as a new category by India’s food regulator in 2016. These are drinks with fruit juice quantity below 10% but not less than 5%, and 2.5% for lime or lemon. These drinks are taxed at 12%, which is the rate for non-aerated beverages like fruit juice. Meanwhile, aerated beverages like Sprite, Thums Up, Pepsi and Miranda are taxed at 28% and also have an additional 12% cess applicable due to their high sugar content.

But are packaged fruit juices or sparkling fruit juices really any healthier than colas? If we go by the sugar content in the different drinks, the simple answer is no, says nutritionist Sheryl Salis of Nurture Health Solutions. According to a presentation by her firm a 100ml serving of Sprite and Tropicana Mixed fruit Delight juice has three teaspoons (tsp) of sugar whereas an equivalent quantity of Thums Up, Pulpy Orange and Frooti have about 2.25-2.5tsp of sugar. Moreover, an average serving of these beverages is at least 200ml. So for instance, a 200ml tetrapack of Tropicana Mixed fruit has 27 grams of sugar which is equivalent to 6tsp. Whereas a Sprite Can is 300ml. About three grams of sugar is considered to be equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar.

Also the way our bodies digest a fruit and fruit juice differs. “Fruit juice isn’t the same as intact fruit and it has got as much sugar as many classical sugar drinks. It is also absorbed very fast so by the time it gets to your stomach your body doesn’t know whether it’s Coca-Cola or orange juice, frankly," Susan Jebb, head of diet and obesity research at the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit, told the Sunday Times in 2014.

India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar. Lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and related ailments are caused due to our increasing consumption of sugar. Even supposedly healthy packaged foods like Kellogg’s Special K which are marketed as naturally low fat are high in sugar. A 30 gram serving of Kellogg’s K has over 2tsp or 7.5 grams of sugar.

The World Health Organization prescribes 1tsp of salt, 6-8tsp of sugar, and 4tsp of oil per person per day. However, according to the Indian Medical Association, the average Indian consumes a worrying two to 3tsp of salt, 16-20tsp of sugar, and 8tsp of oil per day.

If policymakers want to fight obesity, they need to look at comprehensive ingredient-based taxes rather than just taxing certain sugary products. Currently, India taxes chocolates at 18%, whereas cakes and traditional sweets attract a 5% goods and services tax (GST), fruit juices are 12%, packaged bottled water at 18% and colas 40%.

According to Matthew Harding, associate professor of economics and statistics at the University of California who has studied how prices affect consumer behaviour, if the price of one type of food rises, people will often shift to a cheaper substitute. However, certain products are less responsive to price changes, he says: it takes a much bigger tax to make people reject cupcakes or chips than it does to make them decide against broccoli. To be sure, taxes are just one aspect of changing behaviour.

Meanwhile as consumers, perhaps it’s time we rethought our food choices.

Shop Talk will take a weekly look at consumer trends, behaviour and insights.

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