Sugar, your guests' liquid drug of choice?

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The sweet, sweet taste of sugar

When customers choose a glass of wine, or sip a cocktail, they are not thinking first and foremost about how much sugar they are consuming. After all, the main reason for dining out is 'as a treat' which is shared with friends or family. But sugar has now taken over from fat as the public enemy no. 1, due to increasing scientific evidence of the harm to health from over-consumption of added sugars. So, does the demonisation of sugar have the power to hinder the strong growth in the eating out industry, and if so, how should it respond?  

In the UK, the government has listened to lobbying from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and the Action On Sugar campaign and is set to bring in a new sugar tax that will target soft drinks containing high levels of sugars. 

Recent Mintel/Lightspeed research shows that almost half of adults have noticed the rise in media coverage of sugar, and those who had noticed were more likely to monitor or limit the amount of sugar in their diets. As customers become more cautious about the amount of sugar in their drinks, are bars and restaurants offering a wide enough choice with options for those who are trying to cut down on the white stuff?

The demon drink

Yes, sugars are in alcoholic drinks but some are more laden with hidden sugars than others. The recommended daily maximum level of added sugars is no more than 30 grams, making up less than 5% of daily calories according to the NHS. However, for most adults this is not achieved, and currently added sugars make up over double this amount. 

Fortunately for many wine and prosecco lovers, the amount of sugar in these drinks is relatively low. A 100ml glass of prosecco is one of the least calorific and sugary drinks, with a glass containing about 1 gram of sugar.  A small glass of red wine (125ml) is similarly low.   White wine is a little more complicated, because it will depend on the sweetness of the wine, but the sugar in a standard small glass of 125ml comes in at 1.25 grams, says the USDA.

Beers and lagers are also relatively low in added sugars, but the famed 'beer belly' is the result of the higher calorific content associated with heavy consumption. Beer contains less than 1 gram of sugar per pint, but there are 2.7 grams of sugar per 100ml of Fosters', meaning one pint contains just over 13.5 grams. Customers concerned about sugar levels need to be vigilant when drinking cider because although it ranges from being dry to sweet, a pint of Bulmers Original contains a hefty 19.5 grams. Many bars and restaurants offer lighter or alcohol-free alternatives in this category, which can be a great option for those customers being careful with their drinks.

Sweet cravings

It is clear that dessert and fortified wines will have higher sugar content. Croft Original sherry has about 9.5 grams in a 100ml serving.  But as Jeremy Rockett, marketing director of Gonzales Byass, which produces Croft Sherry tells the Telegraph, "although it is a 'sweet drink', people ... generally only consume a single glass, compared to the larger quantities of soft drinks that they might consume in a single sitting."  

Spirits such as rum, gin and vodka could be seen as the good guys as they contain very little- if any - sugar, but only if served without a mixer. But, let's face it, many consumers will ask for a gin and tonic, or a Vodka and cranberry juice without considering that their sugar consumption is about to rocket! A typical glass of G&T might well contain 18 grams of sugar, with virtually all of this coming from the tonic. It's a similar picture with the vodka and cranberry combo, where almost no sugar comes from the vodka, but when mixed with 250ml of cranberry juice, the drink contains a whopping 27.5 grams! Bar and restaurant owners should ensure that there are a few low sugar options available, such as soda water because, after all, not everyone wants their drink simply 'on the rocks'.

A soft alternative?

Soft drinks will be hit hardest by the new sugar tax, particularly as many of the most popular fizzy drinks will be taxed if they have more than 8 grams of sugar per 100ml.  With Pepsi Co and Coca Cola hovering around 11 grams and San Pellegrino at 9 grams, they will currently surpass the limit.  This tax will not come in until 2018, however, which gives manufacturers time to re-formulate their drinks and reduce sugar levels or use alternative sweeteners. The tax is mainly aimed at curbing childhood obesity, but within the adult eating out environment, its affects will be subtler. As consumers do become aware of the sugar in their drinks, businesses can capitalise on their interest in healthy alternatives by offering soft drinks with natural sweeteners such as agave, Stevia or monk fruit. Mintel research also shows that 'drinks which taste less sweet' appeal to half the users, so when choosing brands to stock, this should also be a consideration.

A renaissance of interest in non-alcoholic cocktails is also forecast. While these will contain mixers, according to drinks expert Alice Lascelles, the emphasis will be on the innovative botanicals in your glass. Look out for pollen, home-made vinegars and shrubs. Tony Conigliaro, the Grain Store mixologist, has Rose Iced Tea (black tea, rose petals, anise essence) while at Dandelyan, the drinks' menu is full of intriguing ingredients such as 'chalk bitters', 'crystal peach nectar’ and even 'dandelion capillaire'.

When it's hot...

A spoonful of sugar in hot drinks is not likely to disappear any time soon, but there is some evidence that bitter tastes are gaining traction within the coffee world. The interest in the provenance of specific bean varieties means the coffee connoisseur who knows whether they prefer lush, crisp, fruity or smoky has to be catered for. New ways of drinking coffee such as cold brewed, or carbonated (where chilled espresso is mixed with sparkling water) are drinks that do not rely on sugar but in fact do quite the opposite. Espresso Romano - espresso served with a slice of lemon - is a trend that started in Italy and is particularly suited to coffee beans with citrus notes.

So when thinking about drinks to serve your customers, there is no doubt that sugar will be a significant ingredient in many of them. However, sweet does not have to mean sickly, cloying or artificial, and the most innovative restaurants and bars today are using herbs, spices and sugar alternatives to deliver fantastic tastes. With falling alcohol consumption and increasing interest in premium soft drinks at mealtimes, businesses have a great opportunity to satisfy the 58 per cent of buyers who express an interest in a wider selection of soft drinks. The sugar backlash can be seen as a threat, but in reality it will create many new opportunities.