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Watchdog Group Calls for Sugared Soda Regulation

By Miriam E. Tucker
Medscape Medical News

Feb. 14, 2013 -- Added sugars in soft drinks are hazardous to health and need to be at lower levels, according to a new citizen petition from the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The petition, co-signed by prominent scientists, professional societies, health-advocacy organizations, and state and county public-health departments, calls for the FDA to set safe levels of sugars in sweetened beverages. The added sugars include sucrose, dextrose, and high-fructose corn syrup.

"Americans are consuming far more sugars than the federal government, the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, and other authorities consider advisable," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, said at a press briefing.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugar in American diets, he said, with many people drinking several sodas throughout the day.

Dietary guidelines advise that people eat or drink no more than about 8 teaspoons of added sugars a day. The average American gets about 18 teaspoons per day, about 15% of total daily calories. One 20-ounce bottle of regular soda has about 16 teaspoons of sugars from high-fructose corn syrup.

The 54-page petition cites a growing body of evidence linking added sugars to a host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Drinking large amounts of sugary beverages also adds extra calories to the diet or takes the place of more nutrient-rich foods, noted Walter Willett, MD, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.

"If you add it all up, the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages is enormous," Willett said. He called the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, linked in large part to drinking sugared sodas, "especially troublesome."

The FDA classifies high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars as "generally recognized as safe," meaning that the ingredient is safe at levels people typically eat or drink. The petitioners contend that recent evidence shows added sugars are harmful at the current levels.

The petition also requests that the FDA revise food labels to include an "added sugars" category and to set voluntary targets for lower levels of added sugars in food and beverages. And they ask that the FDA launch a public-education campaign about sugar, as well as work with the food industry and government agencies to encourage limits on the sale of oversized drinks from vending machines and in restaurants.

Jacobson said companies such as Pepsi have already begun adding more healthy beverages, and the industry is now funding research into the use of new artificial sweeteners and sweetness enhancers.

Regulation from the FDA would speed that process, he said. "The FDA should require the beverage industry to re-engineer their sugary products over several years, making them safer for people to consume and less conducive to disease."

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