Germany: Lemonaid's Low-Sugar Controversy Leads to Industry-Wide Changes

The German Food Code Commission (DLMBK) has updated its guidelines for soft drinks. In the future, lemonades may be labeled as such even if they contain less than seven percent sugar. The previous regulation, which required a minimum sugar content of seven percent, was abolished after more than five years of discussion. According to an announcement in the Federal Gazette, lemonades must now only contain "ingredients to achieve a sweet taste (e.g., types of sugar, sweeteners)." The exact amount remains unspecified.

This step ends a long-standing dispute that was effectively exploited by the Hamburg beverage manufacturer Lemonaid. In early 2019, Lemonaid's lime lemonade with six percent sugar was criticized by the Hamburg Consumer Protection Agency for not being sweet enough to be considered lemonade. The Hamburg-Mitte District Office at the time demanded either an increase in sugar content or a rebranding of the product.

Lemonaid resisted this demand, supported by the Hamburg Health Authority, which advocated for less sugar in foods. Despite the dispute, the lemonade continued to be sold. Shortly thereafter, the agency relented and stated that Lemonaid would not be objected to as lemonade for the time being. Instead, they suggested that revising the regulation would be sensible. The sugar farce was temporarily put on hold.

In September 2020, Lemonaid was again targeted by consumer protection officials. This time, the Bonn Consumer Protection Agency criticized that the Lemonaid Passion Fruit flavor contained less sugar (5.5g) than required for lemonades and threatened further action against the manufacturer. However, this did not happen.

In March 2021, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food announced that the DLMBK expert committee responsible for soft drinks, the Beverage Committee, had revised the much-criticized guidelines for soft drinks. The new draft guideline stated that lemonades should contain "a typical total sugar content of 7 grams per 100 milliliters or more." A lower sugar content, according to the revised guidelines, would need to be "adequately indicated."

Lemonaid filed an objection against the planned change to the guidelines in this form. To publicly draw attention to the impending absurdity, Lemonaid once again employed creative PR measures, labeling its lemonade bottles with small warning notices similar to those on cigarette packs ("Warning, low sugar"). This drew criticism from the German Association of the Non-Alcoholic Beverage Industry (WAFG), the representative body of the soft drinks industry, where predominantly the major soft drink manufacturers consolidate their interests. "A salami is not an onion mettwurst, a pound cake is not a Dresden stollen, and a vegan meat substitute is not a steak." Similarly, not every soft drink is a lemonade, the association argued at the time.

In the now revised and published guidelines, an exact quantity specification has been removed. The Hamburg lemonade manufacturer can likely live with this. Speaking to Stern magazine, Lemonaid CEO Paul Bethke expressed his happiness but also noted: "Of course, it's a bit odd that it took five years."

The German Food Code is not a law, but the established guidelines serve consumer protection and transparency. The commission that develops the guidelines consists of consumer advocates, scientists, food inspectors, and industry representatives. They have established standards for more than 2,000 foods, from fruit juices to fruit and vegetable products, to ensure "clarity and truth in food."

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