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FDA urged to regulate sugar in drinks

Agency may not act onpetition filed by advocates

WASHINGTON — The US Food and Drug Administration should regulate the amount of added sugars in soda and other sweetened beverages to reverse the obesity epidemic, a Washington-based nutrition activist group urged in a petition signed by Harvard School of Public Health researchers, the Boston Public Health Commission, and others.

“The FDA considers sugar to be a safe food at the recommended level of consumption, but Americans are consuming two to three times that much,” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed the petition, said at a press briefing on Wednesday. He added that the average American consumes 78 pounds of added sugars each year, mostly from high fructose corn syrup prevalent in sugary sodas, sports drinks, and fruit punch.

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The petition was signed by 10 local public health departments, medical organizations, and 42 nutrition researchers, including many from Harvard. It did not specify what the recommended limit for added sugars should be in soft drinks.

Over the past half-century, Americans have dramatically increased their intake of sugary drinks, and research suggests this has contributed to the obesity epidemic and a rise in related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a variety of cancers.

“The evidence is very robust that when we eat more sugar we gain weight and when we eat less, we lose weight,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who also spoke at the briefing. “Each 12-ounce serving of soda a person consumes each day raises type 2 diabetes risk by 10 to 15 percent, and many Americans are consuming five or six servings.”

While the FDA has the authority to set limits on ingredients on its “generally recognized as safe” list, it has not done so for many of them, including table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Jeffrey Senger, former acting chief counsel of the FDA who is now a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin, said it is unlikely the agency would act to restrict sugar. “Any food, if it’s abused, can be unhealthy,” he said. “Sugar isn’t the same thing as arsenic. It’s not a food that’s inherently unsafe.”

The FDA was urged by the Institute of Medicine in 2010 to regulate the amount of sodium in foods to help Americans control hypertension and heart failure. The agency has not acted on that request, but it did institute new labeling requirements for heart-damaging trans fatty acids in 2006, in part because of a petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest urging such action, according to FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess.

She confirmed that the latest petition was received and would be reviewed by FDA officials, but added that the FDA was not aware of any evidence highlighting added safety risks from high fructose corn syrup compared with other sugars such as honey, table sugar, or molasses.

That suggests that the agency might have a hard time requiring Coke or Pepsi to limit their products to 10 grams of added sugar per serving — what many public health specialists recommend — without also requiring the same limits on cereal, baked goods, and other processed foods.

“To limit the amount of added sugars in beverages, the FDA would need to establish that there is enough scientific evidence to justify limiting these ingredients and to go through a rulemaking process that allows for public comment,” said Miriam Guggenheim, a partner in the food and beverage practice at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C.

Taking a firm position against government regulations to limit added sugars, the American Beverage Association, which represents soft drink manufacturers, pointed out in a statement on its website that companies have already made efforts to reduce sugar in sweetened beverages.

“Today about 45 percent of all non-alcoholic beverages purchased have zero calories,” the group said, “and the overall average number of calories per beverage serving is down 23 percent since 1998.”

Pepsi has introduced Pepsi Next, which contains 60 percent less sugar than traditional Pepsi, replacing some of the high fructose corn syrup with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose. But Coke’s low-sugar C2 soft drink was deemed to be a failure after it was launched in 2004, and is rarely on the shelves now.

About half of Americans consume sugary beverages on any given day, according to the latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and consumption of sugary beverages has increased among children and adults over the past 30 years.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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