Consumer advocate pleads with FDA to set sugar limits in beverages

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A consumer advocacy group is asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to step in and set limits on how much sugar goes in our beverages.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a petition on Wednesday asking the FDA to put "safe levels" on added sugars in beverages and to encourage the food industry to reduce sugar content in breakfast cereals, baked goods and other foods. Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Ore. public health departments have joined the petition.

"As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption," CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a press release. "Like a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon, sugar drinks cause obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. 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."

Added sugars can come in different forms, but the biggest offender according to the group is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is made up of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, which are sugars found in plants.

Many experts believe that added sugars are increasing waistlines and leading to bad health.

"Sugared beverages no matter how much controversy there is, I do believe it is part of the obesity epidemic," Sharon Zarabi, a nutritionist and fitness trainer at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBSNews.com.

Zarabi said that sugars provide no nutrients or proteins and can cause tooth decay and a host of other health problems. She emphasized that sugars are "empty calories" that could only lead to weight gain.

"I do believe that by increasing the awareness of how dangerous sugar can be it can help people limit their intake of added sugar. Maybe they'll think twice before they grab a bottle of soda versus a bottle of water," she stated.

Studies have linked fructose to increased risk for Type 2 diabetes and brain changes that may make a person more likely to overeat. However, a February 2012 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that excessive calories are more likely to lead to extra pounds instead of any qualities found in fructose.

The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than 100 calories per day or six teaspoons of added sugars and men limit themselves to 150 calories per day or nine teaspoons. But, one 20-ounce bottle of soda contains about 16 teaspoons of sugars from high-fructose corn syrup, according to CSPI.

Currently, the FDA says that high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and other sugars are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), CSPI pointed out. The American Beverage Association (ABA) also argued that Americans are consuming 37 percent less calories in sugar from soft drinks than in 2000, and that the overall average number of calories per beverage serving is down 23 percent since 1998. In addition, calorie labels have voluntarily been added to the front of beverage packages.

"Everyone has a role to play in reducing obesity levels - a fact completely ignored in this petition. This is why the beverage industry has worked to increase options and information for consumers," the ABA said in a statement.

CSPI is claiming that contrary to the requirements to be GRAS substance, scientists are alarmed and consider the level of sugar in sugary drinks to be unsafe. The petition does not say what the level of sugar in sweetened drinks should be, but several health agencies have proposes that 2.5 teaspoons (about 10 grams) is acceptable.

"If one were trying to ensure high rates of obesity, diabetes, or heart disease in a population, one would feed the population large doses of sugary drinks," Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in a CSPI press release. He is one of the scientists and physicians who is supporting the CSPI petition to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "The evidence is so strong that it is essential that FDA use its authority to make sugary drinks safer."

Other organizations and public leaders have been taking a stand against added sugars. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces in order to help fight the city's obesity rates. Sugared beverages have been banned in the city's schools since 2003, and officials report there has been a 5 percent reduction in obesity in the last four years.

"Well, in the end, people buying products. It is companies making products available that people want to buy. I don't know if you can hold either one, either side of the equation responsible," Bloomberg said to CBS News in May.

Zarabi said if someone wants to cut down on added sugars, she recommends reading labels and eating foods that contain less than 10 grams of sugar in them. To satisfy sweet cravings, reach for a piece of fruit, dark chocolate or sugar-free gum, she urged. Also, knowing the difference between no sugar added -- which suggests a product only has natural sugars -- and sugar-free -- which means a product used sugar alternatives or substitutes -- is important.

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