Watchdog Group Calls for Sugared Soda Regulation

Miriam E. Tucker

February 14, 2013

Sugar-sweetened beverages are hazardous to human health and need to be regulated, according to a new citizen petition from the watchdog group Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The petition, cosigned by prominent scientists, professional societies, health-advocacy organizations, and state and county public-health departments, calls for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish safe levels of sugars, including sucrose, dextrose, and high-fructose corn syrup, that are added to beverages.

"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 in announcing the petition at a press briefing.

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

Current dietary guidelines advise daily consumption of no more than about 8 teaspoons a day of added sugars, whereas the average American consumes approximately 18 teaspoons per day, constituting about 15% of total daily caloric intake. One 20-ounce bottle of soda alone contains about 16 teaspoons of sugars from high-fructose corn syrup.

The 54-page petition cites a growing body of evidence from the literature linking consumption of added sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, to a host of ills, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, liver dysfunction, dental caries, and even gout.

Moreover, consuming large amounts of sugared beverages adds extra calories to the diet or displaces more nutrient-rich foods, noted petition cosigner Walter Willett, MD, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts.

"If you add it all up, the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages is enormous," Dr. Willett said, adding that the growing epidemic of childhood obesity — attributable in large part to sugared soda consumption — is "especially troublesome."

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

"The FDA has a legal responsibility to enforce the law," Dr. Jacobson noted during a question-and-answer period.

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 as well as beverages. And they ask that the FDA launch a public-education campaign to educate consumers about sugar consumption and to work with the food industry and government agencies to encourage limits on the sale of oversized drinks from vending machines and in restaurants.

According to Jacobson, companies such as Pepsi have already begun altering their portfolios to include more healthful beverages, and the industry is now funding research into the use of newly formulated artificial sweeteners and sweetness enhancers.

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

In response to a reporter's question about the safety of artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas, Dr. Jacobson said that CSPI has asked the FDA to investigate the safety of some of the older artificial sweeteners and that the organization recommends the consumption of flavored waters or newer sweeteners such as sucralose or stevia instead. But he added that despite some data linking aspartame in particular with health ills, "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."

Dr. 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."

Dr. Jacobson and Dr. Willett have disclosed no relevant financial relationships, a CSPI spokesperson told Medscape Medical News.