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.
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.
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."
The American Beverage Association said in a statement that “everyone has a role to play in obesity levels -- a fact completely ignored in this petition.”
The industry has been working to increase lower-sugar drink options, such as taking out full-calorie soft drinks from schools, the statement said. It also said that about 45% of all non-alcoholic drinks bought have zero calories and that Americans are getting 37% fewer calories from sugar-sweetened beverages than in 2000.
Added Sugars vs. Sweeteners
Jacobson said the CSPI has also asked the FDA to investigate the safety of some of the older artificial sweeteners. The organization recommends drinking flavored waters or newer sweeteners such as sucralose or stevia instead. But he said that despite some data linking the artificial sweetener aspartame to some health problems, "those problems pale compared with the certain problems of what we know coming from the 16 teaspoons of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle of soft drink."
Willett added that data linking aspartame to weight gain and diabetes result from "reverse causation," in which being overweight or having diabetes causes people to switch to diet soda, not the other way around. "We've looked at that pretty carefully, in a lot of detail. ... People drinking artificially sweetened beverages do not gain weight [the way] people with full-sugar beverages do."