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While sugar has long been at the centre of health-related controversies in the FMCG industry, companies now face another threat to their reputation: the artificial sweeteners they use as sugar substitutes are also coming under scrutiny.

Our analysis of 1,906 English-language articles published in the last 6 months showed that there was a particular focus on aspartame, used in products from Coca-Cola diet sodas to Mars’ Extra chewing gum and some Snapple drinks. In July, aspartame was declared as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” for the first time by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) cancer research arm.

How the debate unfolded

Reactions to the report have been mixed. FMCG industry groups, including the Calorie Control Council and the International Sweeteners Association, whose members include PepsiCo and Cargill, said the safety of nonsugar sweeteners has been firmly established and that low- and no-calorie sweeteners have been proven to help with weight management and cutting back on calorie and sugar intake. This gave rise to additional controversies and made such industry groups some of the most influential non-profit organisations in the debate, among health authorities that more or less agreed with WHO’s decision:

Moreover, FMCG industry groups managed to skillfully position their spokespeople in the media debate, where they rank alongside health agency officials and academics in terms of influence.

For instance, Frances Hunt-Wood, secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association, was widely quoted as saying that the review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and is based heavily on widely discredited research, while The International Council of Beverages Associations’ executive director Kate Loatman said it could needlessly mislead consumers into consuming more sugar rather than choosing safe no-and low-sugar options.

Similar opinions were expressed by some scientists who reiterated that WHO’s evidence is non-conclusive and that artificial sweeteners may play a beneficial role for some people who are seeking to manage their weight or control their sugar intake.

Many media outlets pointed out that major FMCG players like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have chosen to maintain their existing recipes, showing no immediate plans to remove aspartame. PepsiCo became the most influential company in the debate, as it stated that it doesn’t expect a significant consumer backlash due to the “preponderance of evidence” suggesting that aspartame is safe.

Coca-Cola echoed a similar sentiment, stating they have no plans to change recipes that include this ingredient. Meanwhile, UK food and beverage ingredients supplier Tate & Lyle said it continues to believe in those sweeteners and it’s doing the right thing to help solve the immediate problem of growing obesity and diabetes in the world.

How brands can take control of the narrative

The WHO rulings can have a profound impact on the FMCG industry’s reputation, as demonstrated by the long-lasting repercussions following their 2015 classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.” Despite subsequent challenges by other regulatory bodies like the European Food Safety Authority, companies such as Bayer have faced legal setbacks, highlighting how WHO’s classifications can create lingering public scepticism and legal challenges that affect a company’s bottom line and reputation.

Influence Network Analysis (INA) serves as a pivotal tool for PR and communications professionals, especially when navigating complex issues like the sugar debate. By identifying and mapping out the key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the sugar debate, INA provides invaluable insights into the landscape of the debate, showcasing who holds sway and what perspectives they may champion. By understanding these perspectives, PR and communications professionals can tailor their engagement strategies more effectively, whether the goal is to build partnerships, mitigate criticism, or find common ground on contentious issues.

Our Influence Network Analysis (INA) study into the sugar debate has identified three predominant groups of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) who are shaping public discourse: Public Health Advocates, Industry Representatives, and Academic Researchers. Here is a breakdown of their typical perspectives and strategies for engagement:

Public Health Advocates

Typical Perspective: Advocates for public health are generally concerned about the adverse health effects of high sugar consumption, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. They often push for stricter regulations, such as sugar taxes or warning labels on sugary products.

Strategies for Engagement: PR professionals can approach these advocates with scientifically sound research that supports their concerns, offering alternatives or outlining the steps their organization is taking to mitigate these health risks.

Industry Representatives

Typical Perspective: Those in the industry, such as members of the International Sweeteners Association or the American Beverage Association, are generally more focused on consumer choice and often push back against regulations. They are likely to highlight research suggesting that sugar can be consumed safely in moderation.

Strategies for Engagement: To engage with this group, PR and comms professionals could emphasise self-regulatory measures the industry is taking, such as reducing sugar content in products or offering healthier alternatives.

Academic Researchers

Typical Perspective: Researchers often take a nuanced view based on scientific evidence. They may highlight the complexity of the issue, emphasising that sugar’s impact on health can vary depending on various factors such as age, overall diet, and lifestyle.

Strategies for Engagement: PR professionals can approach these individuals by providing comprehensive data and research that either supports or adds complexity to their findings. An invitation to collaborate on further research could also be a compelling offer.

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