Can Transparency on Calories Be a Model for Change?

A new beverage labeling initiative that is starting this fall provides an interesting example of how businesses can change without government mandates or laws. Launched by the American Beverage Association (ABA), Clear on Calories provides a standard disclosure system for the calorie content on the front label of any single-serve beverage item. Participation is not federally enforced but all the big beverage companies, including Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper-Snapple Group, and Nestle Waters of North America have signed on, as has Honest Tea.In 1998 when we were designing the first Honest Tea labels we struggled with how to advertise the low calorie content of our drinks. Of course we mentioned the number of calories per serving on the nutritional panel on the back of the bottle but we wanted to find a way to communicate that our drinks had a lot less sugar than most bottled teas.

Back then, there was a lot of confusion among consumers in terms of what constituted a healthy drink. Some of the fastest-growing brands were selling teas and juices with 120 calories per serving in 20 ounce bottles and marketing it as "healthy refreshment"—that's 20 teaspoons of sugar in just one bottle!

Our initial product line had just 17 calories per serving, or about two teaspoons per bottle. We didn't want to label our drinks as "diet" because we thought consumers would associate that term with artificial ingredients, which of course weren't organic.

We tried other ways to communicate the less-sweet properties of our drinks. Our first phrase was "Freshly Brewed & Barely Sweetened." That phrase sounded good but people kept reading it as "Barley Sweetened". In fact, our distributor in Colorado even put that phrase on his truck!

We later settled on "Just a Tad Sweet" for our 30-48 calorie drinks, but even that phrase is a little nebulous for someone new to Honest Tea—just a tad sweet compared to what?? We also heard from consumers who thought we were being dishonest by only disclosing the number of calories per eight ounce serving rather than for the whole bottle. Even though our labels were following FDA standards, a few years ago we voluntarily took the step of disclosing the amount of calories in an entire 16 ounce bottle.

Clear on Calories encourages beverage manufacturers to feature a standard label on the front of every bottle that states how many calories there are in the entire bottle for single serve bottles (20 ounces or less) or per serving for larger bottles. It is helping Honest Tea communicate something we should have done twelve years ago.

The whole initiative is an interesting model for change—if the government had tried to mandate this kind of label on industry, there would have probably been a great deal of protest that the government was over-reaching and imposing a nanny state. Some may argue that the ABA is taking this step to pre-empt government interference, but even if that's the case, the outcome is that consumers will have an extra tool to help them be more informed, and that's clearly a good outcome. I also expect the new Clear on Calories label to discourage companies from introducing sweeter drinks—who wants to be promoting a product out there with 300 calories in it?

It's worth wondering what other industries might be able to emulate this model—there has recently been discussion about grading fuel efficiency for cars. Could there be a label for hourly energy consumed by an appliance? How about antibiotics or hormones used in non-organic milk?

Read more about sugar:
Watch What You Eat: The Sugar Content is Deceptive
Corn Syrup vs. Sugar: Which is sweeter for your diet?
Pepsi Throwback Uses Real Sugar, But Is It Better For You?

Tags: Diet | Drinks