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Petition asks FDA to set safe levels for added sugars

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants federal regulators to set limits for how much sugar can be added to beverages like soda – so it filed a petition.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants federal regulators to set limits for how much sugar can be added to beverages like soda – so it filed a petition.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

A nonprofit consumer advocacy group is urging federal food regulators to identify a safe level of added sugars for beverages, saying excessive added sugars in American diets has "created a public health crisis of epic proportions."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday, citing data which establishes "the serious public health risks associated with large intakes of added sugars, particularly when consumed in beverages."

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health lent its support to the initiative, signing onto an accompanying letter addressed to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA's commissioner.

The FDA classifies high fructose corn syrup, sucrose and other sugars as "generally recognized as safe," but CSPI's petition says it's the quantities in which these sweeteners are used in food that makes them so dangerous to people's health. In order to recognized as safe, there must be a scientific consensus that that's true – and CSPI is telling the FDA that consensus isn't there, even if it once was.

"As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a statement.

The petition asks the FDA to determine what level of added sugars would be safe for use in beverage, and then to require that beverage manufacturers gradually honor those limits in phases. CSPI didn't propose a specific safe level, but did note that other agencies have said 10 grams of added sugar in a 20-ounce bottle is reasonable.

Added sugars' effect on health

As for why CSPI is worried, the organization writes in its petition that added sugars have been linked to obesity:

Studies indicate that people who consume moderate to large amounts of added sugars (especially in liquids) are especially prone to gain weight because they do not compensate well for those liquid calories in subsequent meals.

And heart disease:

In the Nurses' Health Study involving more than 88,000 healthy women who were tracked for 24 years, those who consumed at least two [sugar-sweetened beverages] a day had a 35 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than those who consumed less than one [sugar-sweetened beverage] per month.

And diabetes:

Among 43,580 men and women in the Singapore Chinese Health Study, those who consumed at least two soft drinks a week had a 42 percent higher risk of diabetes than those who rarely consumed soft drinks. After adjustment for [body mass index] and calorie intake, the risk was 34 percent higher among those who drank at least two soft drinks a day.

And metabolic syndrome:

In a study that was part of the Framingham Offspring Study, which followed roughly 6,000 people for 4 years, those who consumed at least one soft drink a day had a 44 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with the metabolic syndrome than those who consumed less than one soft drink a day.

And gout:

It is well established that consuming fructose raises uric acid levels, which can lead to gout. In humans, high doses (200g or more a day) of fructose increase blood levels of uric acid.

On top of all that, writes CSPI, the more sugar a person consumes, the fewer nutrients she or he is able to take in. CSPI references a study which "found an inverse association between the consumption of added sugars and the consumption of a variety of essential vitamins and nutrients." And consumption is high, wrote the CPSI:

[Current] consumption of added sugars is about 18-23 teaspoons per day, or about 15 percent of calories, for an average person over 2 years old, with much higher levels of consumption for many people. Health authorities recommend, depending on the demographic group, that no more than about 3-10 percent of calories come from added sugars. … For someone consuming 15 percent of their calories … from added sugars, achieving the recommended goal would require almost a 60 percent reduction.

South Los Angeles is no stranger to the problems experts believe are brought on by excessive sugar consumption. Twenty-four percent of county adults are obese, but that number jumps to 33 percent when it comes to those in South L.A. alone. As far as the area's diabetes prevalence rate, the southside doesn't have the highest, but it's among the top three: Nearly 12 percent of residents there have the condition.

In addition to asking the FDA to establish safe levels, CSPI's petition also asks the agency to revise the Nutrition Facts labels to differentiate between sugar and added sugar, and to work with the food industry to encourage a reduction in the use and consumption of added sugars.