Amount of added sugar average American consumes in one year displayed at CSPI press conference.
Amount of added sugar average American consumes in one year displayed at CSPI press conference.
Deborah Kotz/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON, DC—The US Food and Drug Administration needs to regulate the amount of added sugars in soda and other sweetened beverages to reverse the obesity epidemic, urged a Washington, DC-based nutrition activist group 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,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed the petition, 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 sugar sodas, sports drinks, and fruit punch.

The petition was signed by 10 public health departments, a variety of medical organizations, and 42 highly respected nutrition researchers including many from Harvard; it didn’t specify what the recommended limit for added sugars should be in soft drinks.

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Over the past half-century, Americans have dramatically increased their intake of sugary drinks, and research suggests this has contributed to the current obesity epidemic and a rise in related diseases like 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, chair 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 5 or 6 servings.”

While the FDA has the authority to set limits on toxic compounds like arsenic or lead that may wind up in foods from the soil or manufacturing processes, the agency has not set limits on many ingredients on its “generally recognized as safe” list. Table sugar or sucrose, for example, is currently not limited, nor is high fructose corn syrup. The FDA has been 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 so far hasn’t acted on that request or on another made by public health officials to limit the amount of partially hydrogenated oils, which contain heart-damaging trans fats, that are allowed in foods.

“In order 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 & beverage practice at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, DC.

An FDA spokesperson confirmed that the petition was received and would be reviewed by agency officials, but added that the FDA was not aware of any evidence highlighting added safety risks from high fructose corn syrup compared to other sugars like honey, table sugar, or molasses.

In other words, the FDA would have a hard time requiring Coke or Pepsi to limit their products to 10 grams of added sugar per serving—which is what many public health experts recommend—without also requiring the same limits on cereal, baked goods, or other processed foods.

Taking a firm position against goverment regulations to limit added sugars, the American Beverage Association, which represents soft drink manufacturers, pointed out in a statement on their 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.”

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

Soda manufacturers have taken steps to reduce the amount of added sugars in sweetened beverages: Pepsi introduced Pepsi Next which contains 60 percent less sugar than traditional Pepsi replacing some of the high fructose corn syrup with artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. Coke’s low-sugar C2 soft drink was deemed to be a market failure when it launched in 2004, and is rarely on the shelves now.

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