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February 21, 2013

Citizen petition urges FDA to limit levels of added sugars currently considered safe in both beverages and food

By Sarah E. Baumann, JD

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has submitted a citizen petition asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to limit the use of added sugars in beverages and food, including those sugars that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The CSPI noted that the average American consumption of added sugars has dramatically increased since the FDA recognized sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn sugar, invert sugar, and corn syrup as GRAS in 1982. The petition also asks the FDA to adjust product labeling to make the amount of added sugars clear and educate the public and members of the beverage and food industry about appropriate sugar intake.

GRAS. Food ingredients that are classified as GRAS, rather than as food additives, are subject to good manufacturing practices requirements, but are not otherwise limited in their use. In order for a substance to be labeled as GRAS, the FDA must determine that competent scientists are reasonably certain that the substance is not harmful when used as intended, considering the likely consumption of the substance and its cumulative effect on the diet. The FDA must analyze generally available information that demonstrates “that there is a consensus among qualified experts” about the substance’s safety. When the FDA issued the 1982 proposed rule recognizing certain added sugars as GRAS, it noted that it would reevaluate the issue if average annual consumption of the sugars “increase[d] significantly” or if new scientific evidence suggested a potential health hazard. The CSPI cited United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the consumption of caloric sweeteners increased from 86.2g per day in 1982 to 96.4g per day in 2010. It noted that scientists, including those who submitted a letter in support of the citizen petition to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, agree that current consumption levels are not safe.

Obesity and sugar consumption. Obesity rates in children ages 6-19 tripled between 1963-1965 and 2007-2008. Prevalence of adult obesity doubled between those same years. Extreme obesity in adults sextupled between 1960-1962 and 2007-2008. The CSPI posits that added sugars have contributed to those increases. Various studies suggest that 14.2 percent of the population gets more than 25 percent of its calories from added sugars. Added sugars contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gout, and metabolic, or insulin resistance, syndrome, a combination of waist measurement, elevated triglyceride, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels, and low good cholesterol.

Sources of sugar. Nearly 50 percent of added sugars come from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), including soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and tea. Numerous studies involving SSB consumption have found that participants who consumed artificially-sweetened or unsweetened beverages were less likely to gain weight and, in some instances, more likely to lose weight than participants who consumed SSBs. SSBs are particularly damaging, according to the CSPI, because liquid calories are less satiating than calories from foods. However, foods, including breakfast cereals, cake, and candy, account for more than 50 percent of added sugar consumption.

Requests for action. The petition asks the FDA to condition continued GRAS status on limiting added sugars to new, safer levels, particularly in beverages. According to the petition, changes in labeling, such as the mere addition of sugar and sodium levels in Nutrition Facts labels, have not sufficiently lowered consumption of unhealthy substances. However, setting ingredient limits, such as the amount of fat in ground beef, has worked to lower consumption. The CSPI notes that non-caloric sweeteners are already being used to decrease sugar and preserve taste in some soft drinks and contends that “sweetness enhancers,” which heighten sweet sensations by accessing sweetness receptors on the tongue, could preserve flavor while limiting sugar. It also suggests that the FDA limit the size of non-diet soft drinks, decreasing the average size by at least one ounce. The petition recommends that the FDA replace the word “Sugars” on Nutrition Facts labels with “Added Sugars,” specifying a daily value. The FDA should also set voluntary targets for lowering added sugars, perhaps basing the target on the lowest level of sugar currently offered by a brand in a particular product category. In addition, the FDA should start a public awareness campaign about added sugar consumption.

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