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CSPI Asks FDA to Set Sugar Limits for Beverages


The Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday to determine what level of added sugars in beverages is safe for consumption, arguing that the large amount of sugar consumed by many Americans is negatively impacting people’s health.

Sugar is currently considered to be “generally recognized as safe,” by the FDA, which means that there is a scientific consensus that an ingredient is safe at the current levels consumed. But because Americans are consuming so much sugar through sugary beverages — and there’s consensus that all that sugar is leading to soaring rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — CSPI is asking the FDA to determine what level of added sugars would now be considered safe in beverages.

“In essence, we’re asking the FDA to ensure that soft drinks and other drinks are safe products, not harmful products as they are now,” said Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, at a press conference unveiling the petition. “Soft drinks and other sugary beverages account for about half the sugars we consume.”

To address the other half, CSPI is asking the FDA to look at the sugar content of other foods, such as breakfast cereals or baked goods, and to set voluntary targets for lower sugar levels in those products and encourage the food industry to voluntarily follow those guidelines. CSPI also is petitioning the FDA to launch an educational campaign to spread the word about the harmful effects of overconsumption of sugar.

The beverage industry is expected to oppose the petition, Jacobson said. But he noted that CSPI is asking the FDA to set sugar levels that would be implemented by beverage makers over the course of several years, giving them time to adjust ingredients in their products and further develop less-harmful sweetening techniques, including new sweeteners and sweetness enhancers.

“I think that big reductions in sugar are feasible, and the regulation by the FDA would drive technologies to get to those reduced levels much more quickly,” Jacobson said.

Public health departments from cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia signed onto a letter in support of the petition, as did dozens of health-focused organizations and medical experts.

Among them is Dr. Walter Willet, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Willet noted that while anybody will gain weight from consuming too many calories, it’s the ease of overconsumption of calories from sugary drinks which worries him.

“In the standard 20 ounce soda, there’s about 16 teaspoons of sugar in one of those. You can imagine — I’ve actually tried it with kids — to just ask them to just eat 16 teaspoons of sugar. It’s almost impossible to do that, but you can gulp it down in a minute or two and go back to another, when you have sugar in that liquid form.”

Sugar consumption is tied to a number of diseases and conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dental cavities and even gout, Willet said.

Willet said he’s most worried about sugar’s impact on children and adolescents. Young people are now developing diseases typically linked to adults, such as fatty liver or Type 2 Diabetes, often caused by obesity. Willet says he thinks of kids when he hears arguments about how efforts to limit sugary drink consumption are limiting freedom of choice, such as the proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks to 16 ounces in many New York City venues.

“Those children are now going to have shortened lives and suffering, even before they die,” Willet said. “Their choices are really being limited in ways that really makes the fact that you have to go back [to a soda fountain] if you really want more sugar [to drink] really trivial.”

Dr. Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness, said he sees sugar reduction as a public health effort comparable to improving sanitation to combat infectious diseases or prohibiting smoking in public spaces to reduce tobacco consumption.

In this case, it’s important to make healthier choices easier and protect people from the dangers of the modern environment, Kahan said. Right now, environments are so unhealthy that people struggle to make healthy decisions.

“I see the ravages of nutrition-related health conditions every day,” Kahan said. “And I see the difficulty of people making long-term lifestyle changes, even when they want so desperately to improve their health.”

Jacobson noted that sugar shouldn’t be considered a toxin, but rather efforts should focus on reducing consumption. He even admitted to having a bit of a sweet tooth.

“I use a teaspoon of sugar in my cup of tea every day, and I live to show that it’s not poisonous,” Jacobson said. “It’s the overconsumption that’s par for the course in the U.S. that we’re concerned about.”