Tesco has announced that small cartons of Ribena – that underwhelming soft drink of childhood – will be banned from stores in an effort to curb rising rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.

True to type, social media has gone into meltdown. There are many things we’ll put up with, but this, apparently, is not one of them.

But is it actually a bad thing? Aren’t there some positive angles to this?

First, we’d like to buck the trend of most media outlets and actually explain the facts of Tesco’s Ribena ban. It is not a blanket ban on all Ribena. You can still buy your big bottles of Ribena cordial from Tesco. Instead, it’s the little cartons, the ones marketed at children, which have fallen foul of Tesco’s withering standards.

The consensus seems to be that the ban is a bad thing. We should have personal choice, say its critics; retailers shouldn’t be able to pick and choose what they make available for purchase and what they don’t. Even though that’s exactly what every retailer does.

Otherwise, the criticism seems to be bafflement that Tesco should choose Ribena as its target, when there are more damaging beverages on the shelves. Ribena, in these arguments, is invariably represented as “the little guy,” bravely punching above its weight against other soft drink giants. In fact, Ribena – along with Lucozade – is owned by Japanese whiskey giant Suntory. Between them, the two drinks earn £500m a year.

The personal choice argument seems a little bit irrelevant, seeing as we’re talking about children. We don’t give children license to make significant decisions in any other aspect of life; why should this be any different?

After all, that’s the only group this ban is aimed at. Tesco is very specifically trying to address childhood obesity in some small way by limiting the number of sugary products available. Along with Ribena, they’ve also banned Capri-Sun, those little pouches of juice with the fiddly straws. They haven’t banned Coca-Cola, even though it would make more sense from a health point of view, because that would take away the “personal choice” of responsible adults. Technically, Coke isn’t aimed at kids.

Ribena enthusiasts have taken to social media to slam Tesco’s decision. Image source: dailymail.co.uk

And isn’t it a good thing that someone is standing up and tackling obesity? We’re too used to an unregulated food industry, with the only limitation being the “responsibility deal.” It’s refreshing to see a big company actually taking responsibility, and doing something – even if that something seems a bit misguided – to try to solve the problem.

Because that is the goal, according to a company spokesperson:

“We want to help our customers make healthier choices and that’s why we have pledged to continue to cut sugar from the food and drink on our shelves. From September all the children’s juice drinks we sell will have no added sugar in them because we know it’ll make a positive difference to children’s health.”

That said, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at the news, for several reasons. Most troublingly, this ban, like other drastic anti-sugar measures, completely ignores the needs of children with type 1 diabetes. Many of their parents are huge fans of Ribena cartons; they’re a convenient and tasty solution to hypos when out and about. Some parents say that their kids won’t drink anything else.

That in mind, the decision looks too drastic, too poorly thought-out. Such measures often are. Perhaps Tesco could take more gradual steps towards tackling the obesity crisis: they could stop displaying unhealthy treats so prominently, or do more to encourage healthy eating. Banning one sugary product will only lead to people consuming another sugary product. As Malcolm Clark, the coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, has pointed out:

“It should be about helping change the sweetness profile of children’s taste and trying to start educating children’s pallets so they don’t need so much sugar in all sorts of different products.”

But, while Tesco’s decision seems both bizarre and questionable, it seems fair to say that its heart is in the right place. Rather than blasting Tesco for the clumsy execution, maybe we should be supporting a big company that is trying to improve public health. Safe to say, there aren’t many of them.

Featured image source: bt.com.

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