New Telegraph

February 23, 2024

Malt drinks: Sweet silent killers (2)

People consume malt drinks believing they are good energy sources. But there are now worries as experts say their sugar contents could significantly increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. ISIOMA MADIKE, who has been on this story, concludes the series

When a former Vice-Chancellor at the Benson Idahosa University (BIU), Benin, Edo State, Prof. Ernest Izevbigie, dragged the Nigerian Breweries Plc to a High Court in Benin City for alleged deception, many thought he was just playing to the gallery.

But the professor of Biochemistry insisted he sued the company which purportedly inscribed “low sugar,” on the can of its premium malt drink, Amstel, a non-alcoholic drink. He was miffed when he found the information to be misleading. Izevbigie alleged that a laboratory test result had revealed that the product contained more sugar than the company claimed in the inscription on the brand. He then urged the court to order NB Plc to tender a written apology as, according to him, he has been injured by the alleged deception.

The inscription on the product, he told the court, was equally misleading to the public, as his clinical research was enough proof that the malt did not merit the “low sugar” tag. When the biochemist subjected the drink to scientific and nutritional enquiry, he was startled at the result. A cursory look at the nutritional table of a Can or bottle of Amstel Malta from his laboratory test showed the total carbohydrate to be approximately 40g.

This is by 12.1g per serving. A serving being 100ml, the total content of a Can being 33cl or 330ml, which equals 3.3 serving and the carbohydrate content of a Can is 39.9g (12.1 x 3.3). Izevbigie discovered that when converted, every 3.30ml Can of Amstel Malta contained 97.7 per cent of sugar or approximately 98 per cent compared to an average product in the market without the “low sugar” claim. When further converted to cubes, he discovered that there are 9.97 cubes of sugar (4g=1 cube of sugar) 40g/4g= 10 cubes in every Can of Amstel Malt drink which is 10 cubes of sugar per Can by mathematical computation.

This result necessitated a comparative analysis with other malt drinks, Maltina, also brewed by Nigerian Breweries and Malta Guinness, a product of Guinness Nig., which showed that a 33cl or 330ml Can of the other malts contain 12.4g of carbohydrates per serving or 40.9 per cent of sugar per Can or 10.2 cubes of sugar per Can. This, according to his findings, has only two per cent more sugar compared to the “low sugar” Amstel Malt drink, which is 10.0 vs 10.2 cubes of sugar per Can. By this analysis, the low sugar claim made by the company on its Amstel Malta bottle or Can, was proved to be deceptive.

Izevbigie had, by this contention, proved that there were no statistical, mathematical, nutritional or clinical difference in content analysis of Amstel Malta and Maltina drinks to warrant and/or justify the claim of low sugar by the company. He however, produced no report in court as his investigation was for his personal use.

But his argument made sense to the court which agreed with the submission that a low sugar malt drink is one that contains 2.5g/serving of 100ml and Amstel Malt drink is not in that category as it does not contain less than 2.5g of sugar at the time.

The drink, instead, contained 10 cubes of sugar when converted as against the 10½ to 10¼ cubes found in other malt drinks. Izevbigie said: “I discovered during a routine medical examination that my blood sugar level was high, which was traced to my regular consumption of the said malt drink. So, I argued that Nigerian Breweries Plc, makers of Amstel Malta declaration of low sugar on its product, was factually and scientifically untrue and therefore deceitful.

“The claim as I discovered was only intended to deceive me and other consumers that the product was safer and healthier, when in actual fact is saturated with sugar like other malt drinks.

I also discovered it was not a better substitute, especially for members of the public, who are either pre-diabetic or already leaving with the condition. “Their claim therefore misled me, friends and relatives, who relied on the erroneous advice I gave to them on the malt, the consequence of which was a worsening of our diabetic condition.

They had no choice but to believe me because of my studies in Growth Biology and Nutrition.” Saturday Telegraph however, gathered that before 2013, there was no government regulation on what should be the sugar content of low sugar malt drink.

So, it is difficult to establish the basis for which the National Agency for Food & Drug Administration & Control (NAFDAC) gave approval for the company to advertise its malt as low sugar.

Amstel Malta was launched in 1994 and the low sugar campaign for the brand which followed the launch was premised on the fact that Amstel Malt drink contained the lowest sugar among other malt brands in the Nigerian market right from when it was launched. Meanwhile, Nigerian Breweries told the court that in 2007, the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) provides that malt drinks in the country shall have between 10 per cent and 16 per cent of sugar and within this range Amstel Malta has the lowest sugar.

It also claimed to have declared on its label the carbohydrate content which is 13.7g/100ml while Izevbigie, according to the company, wrongly used 12.4g in his analysis. The carbohydrate difference between Maltina and Amstel Malta in each unit of package (330ml) is 5.28g with Amstel Malt drink lower in carbohydrate, it further stated.

The com-pany equally claimed it had earlier on October 7, 2011, explained the basis of the low sugar claim on Amstel Malta. Nigerian Breweries, however, lost the case because, according to the court, it found out that the product is within the level of standard approved by SON and that its carbohydrate level is only slightly and insignificantly lower than that of other brands.

The judgement read in part: “I find the argument of the company lame because it should have advertised lower sugar than others by whatever level. It did not do that rather it states “LOW SUGAR”. I am satisfied from Izevbigie’s evidence which is not strenuously denied by the company.”

Based on this judgement, the regulatory bodies, NAFDAC and SON, announced new regulations, stipulating new guidelines for sugar content and labelling for malt drinks. In the new directive, which is said to be in line with the international standard, only malt drinks containing less than 2.5g of sugar could be labelled ‘Low Sugar’, and between 2.5g and below 9g should be classified ‘Light Sugar’.

This change in regulation nullified all ‘Low Sugar’ claims in the market. Following this, Guinness Nigeria made the bold choice to temporarily discontinue low sugar variant and launched what is the very first ‘Light Sugar’ malt drink in Nigeria. But NAFDAC’s director, Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Directorate (FSAN), Sherif Olagunju, disagrees. He said that government had regulated what should be the sugar content of low sugar malt drink in 2013.

By this, he added, anybody or organisation that did something different after that time would have gone against the standards. According to him, NAFDAC’s labelling regulations has been in place for a long time and so there is no basis for any organisation to deceive the public. “You don’t deceive the consumer; we watch out for this seriously, you must not be deceitful. Organisations should be honest with their products, their products must be safe and of good quality.

“For instance, we don’t allow somebody to say this is premium; what makes it premium? Because it’s deceitful if there is nothing that makes it premium then you can’t claim it is premium, but if you can prove to us as a regulator that this is premium, then we would agree. As far as we are concerned there are standards in Nigeria and they are called Nigeria Industrial Standards (NIS) that is what our own regulations are drawn out of the standards,” he said.

Olagunju did not stop there but said that standards have specific definitions of dispatch beverage, whether it is a beer, soft drink, juice, malt, low sugar, high sugar, low sodium, high sodium, there are clear definitions of all these things.

He said though low and high sodium didn’t come into beverage we are talking about, “I’m just relating it to the elaborate standards generally because somebody may say I have low sodium salt or high sodium salt, what could that claim? “There are requirements to be met when you make a claim on any product.

The malt that we are talking about are three types: standard malt, light malt and low sugar malt. For the standard malt, the sugar concentration weight per volume should be 10 to 16 per cent. The light malt should be 2.5 to 9 weights per volume; the low sugar malt, less than 2.5 weights per volume. These claims should be on the label.

“But since we don’t sleep there in the factories to make sure the companies comply, it is expected that they would comply. So, what we do is, on a regular basis, NAFDAC carries out what it calls routine inspections, in which the officials go to the offices unannounced. We just go into their factories and say we just came to look at your processes.

We look at everything they are doing and then take withdraw samples and take them to our laboratories, check for confirmative. If they comply, then no problem, but if there is anything that is not compliant in any way then we raise a flag. “In addition to that, we also have a directorate called post-pharmacy vigilance and post-marketing surveil-lance. The post-pharmacy vigilance takes care of the medicinal part where people have either drug reactions or there are any complain about medicines.

While post-marketing surveillance takes care of post approval compliance monitoring. What they do is to buy products that are in the market, bring them into the lab and we test. This is not with the knowledge of the manufacturers.

“NAFDAC does this using tax payers money just to make sure that it protects the health of Nigerians. We try to monitor what is available in the market to find out if they are complying with what NAFDAC has approved.

These are the steps that we take to ensure that these products meet the standard that have been specified,” FSAN boss said. The General Manager, Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency (LASCOPA), Mrs Kemi Olugbode, has promised to look into the issue of malt drinks as it relates to the sugar content so as to make sure the consumers are protected. She said: “We will look into this; it is a serious issue and we’ll do everything within our scope to make sure consumers are protected.

We are going to co-opt SON since it is her responsibility to give standard to different types of product items in the country. We will try to find out from SON the required standards for malt drinks in Nigeria.

“We are also going to hold brands and manufacturers of these products to account for not supplying adequate information for the knowledge of consumer. I think we really have to look at that and see how we can meet with SON, NAFDAC and the manufacturers of the malt drinks, advise them on how to repackage their product to protect the interest of consumers.

They should be truthful and provide adequate information in order to help consumer to make decision on the matter.” Meanwhile, Nigerians have been reacting since Saturday Telegraph’s first publication a few weeks ago. For instance, a man, who prefers to be identified simply as Festus from Iba, Lagos, said: “Thanks for bringing this issue to the attention of Nigerians. My wife bought your paper and showed to me. The story kind of vindicated me because I had struggled for years to stop her from drinking malt drinks without success.

“She is addicted to malt drinks in spite of my warnings concerning the sugar content. With your paper bringing it to the fore, she is better informed now and she has vowed to minimise the intake considerably. We will appreciate if the series could continue for more people to learn from the expose.” Another, who gave his name only as Obehi from Benin, the Edo State capital, thundered: “Now I know we are in trouble in this country.

But why have the manufacturers been hiding from making this known in the labels the way the liquor manufacturers’ warm infants to desist from drinking and an advice for people to drink responsibly? Your report I believe will save many more Nigerians who think they can’t do without malt drinks.”

Saheed Adedeji, from Ibadan, Oyo State, also said: “Wonderful piece. We are grateful to your paper and the professor that did what many knew but could not do. These multinationals are simply killing Nigerians. Unfortunately our regulators usually compromise and often look the other way. Not many papers would do this because of pecuniary gains.”

The professor who took NB Plc to court has also reacted. He told Saturday Telegraph that the experts who spoke to the paper when it was first published may be economical with some truth. First, he countered what Fasanmade, who said there is no absolute amount of sugar one could take. Izevbigie said: “That is not totally correct; 130 g/day for adults is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) by International Standards. The American Diabetes Association recommends lower intake for diabetic individuals.”

The biochemist also punctured what Nnam said about the process carbohydrates take before it ends up as sugar in the body. “I beg to disagree with this position. There are three classes of carbohydrates: Sugars (disaccharides, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup, and sucrose found in soft drinks, malt drinks etc.); Starches (found in foods such as garri, rice, plantain, yam etc.); and Fiber (not glucose-yielding). “Both sugars and starches are digested in the Gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) into simple sugar (glucose) followed by absorption into the blood stream. This is underscored and supported by common practice— during hypoglycemia / low blood sugar or glucose.

An individual ingests soft drink containing HFCS or sucrose which appears in the blood stream few minutes later as GLUCOSE NOT AS HFCS OR SUCROSE. “It provides evidence that sugars in beverages are digested (broken down) before entering the blood stream for transportation to cells and tissues that need it for metabolism to get required energy. Furthermore, sugar is NOT the end product of carbohydrates: The end product of carbohydrates (fiber excluded) is pyruvate, at least in the cytoplasm of the cell.”

Incidentally, none of the malt brewing companies, which Saturday Telegraph contacted for comments, responded in spite of the letters addressed to their cooperate affairs departments and acknowledged on February 19. Aside the low sugar malt drinks, the companies were expected to address the issue of high content of sugar in the regular malt drinks, which has somewhat become a disturbing phenomenon. However, it was discovered that a number of them may have adjusted their strategy since the specified guidelines as a result of the complaints not necessarily due to competition. They now play up health as one of their unique selling propositions to retain or increase their market share.

They have also been developing new marketing approaches to reach consumers, some of it are promotional campaigns based on health messages. According to consumers, who spoke to Saturday Telegraph, “the strategy is yet another example of how the marketplace responds when the public changes its mind.” This is what consumers have mistaken, as they are increasingly seeing malt brands as healthy alternative to alcoholic drinks. And the producers seemed to have responded by playing up this mind-set among consumers to developing and positioning their products along this line.

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