PALM BEACH, Fla. — A consumer watchdog has asked the federal government to determine how much high-fructose corn syrup and sugar is safe in beverages from sodas to energy drinks.
The question comes at a time when the Palm Beach County Health Department is urging parents to stop giving sugary drinks to their children.
Although refined sugar made from sugar cane grown here and in nearby counties is a $1 billion-a-year business, most soft drinks are made with high fructose corn syrup.
Soft drinks are so full of sweeteners that they are unsafe, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which last week asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine “safe levels” of added sugars for beverages and to set limits for manufacturers.
A typical 20-ounce bottle of soda contains about 16 teaspoons of sugar from high fructose corn syrup — more than twice the daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also wants caloric sweetener limits set for non-carbonated drinks and such sweetened beverages as sports, energy and fruit drinks and flavored milks.
“As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption,” said center Executive Director Michael Jacobson. “The FDA should require the beverage industry to re-engineer their sugary products over several years, making them safer.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers, called Center for Science in the Public Interest’s 54-page FDA complaint against sugar and high-fructose corn syrup “unnecessary and misguided.”
Weight gain can’t be blamed on soda or any specific food or beverage, but is due to simple mathematics, when the amount of calories consumed exceeds the amount of calories burned, the food industry group said.
The petition asks the FDA to determine what level of added sugars would be safe for use in beverages, and to require those limits to be phased in over several years. The petition did not propose a specific safe level, but notes that several health agencies identified two-and-a-half teaspoons — 10 grams — as a reasonable limit in a healthier drink.
The petition also asks the FDA to encourage the food industry to reduce sugar content in breakfast cereals, baked goods and other foods.
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based registered dietitian Sandy Livingston said sweetened tea and fruit punch have the same amount of sugar as soda. Drinks with less sugar, especially with less high-fructose corn syrup would be great for consumers’ health, she said.
“I would like to see the beverage industry do this on their own without waiting for a mandate from the FDA,” Livingston said.
Bob Messenger, publisher of The Morning Cup, a food-and-beverage industry report, said, “CSPI’s petition just piles on to the building anti-sugar, anti-soda, anti-junk food momentum. I still believe that all of this is an assault on Americans’ right to make their own choices, but I also think this is a fight the industry will eventually lose.
“I think at some point the FDA will cave to CSPI and other activist voices because the Obama administration, led by Michelle Obama’s health and wellness initiative, will provide the pressure for FDA to line up with the health advocates and pull the trigger on serious reform. Our food and beverage culture is in the process of being restructured and I’m not sure the food and beverage industry can do anything to stop it,” Messenger said.
Susan Joyce Proctor, a Delray Beach, Fla.-based nutritionist, said, “On the one hand, the government can’t really limit the choices that people make. On the other hand, the fact that soft drinks are so visible and prevalent and part of the culture, it is really scary.
“As bad as sugar is, the high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are even worse. My personal feeling is that soda is just an abomination,” Proctor said.
The sugar industry took issue with the petition lumping together sugar — or sucrose — with high-fructose corn syrup.
“More than 90 percent of the caloric sweetener sold to the American beverage industry is HFCS,” said Clewiston, Fla.-based U.S. Sugar Corp. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez. “Natural sugar does not sweeten major brand sodas.
“Sugar is a completely natural product that has been consumed safely for thousands of years while HFCS is a man-made product used as a sugar substitute over the last 40 years. USDA data shows that per capita consumption of the sucrose found in sugar cane and sugar beets has markedly declined — down 35 percent since 1970 — during that same 40-year period, which also coincides with the dramatic increase in the prevalence of obesity and metabolic disease,” Sanchez said.
Megan Mitchell, spokeswoman for The Sugar Association in Washington, said, “In the past three years, only 4 percent of sugar sold in the U.S. went to the beverage industry. Hence, our constant insistence that they not be referred to as “sugar-sweetened beverages.”
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Palm Beach County health department spokesman Tim O’Connor said his and other health departments around the nation are launching a campaign that advocates consumption of drinks with no sugar.
The 5210 campaign is aimed at children and calls for the following each day: five or more fruits or vegetables, two hours or less of screen time, one or more hour of physical activity and zero sweetened beverages.
Sue Grammond, a registered dietitian with the health department said, “Children shouldn’t be drinking any sweetened beverages.
“There are a lot of things being floated, like a tax on soda. Then you get the backlash from Coca-Cola, saying if you drink a 12-ounce Coke, then exercise for 30 minutes and work it off. That is fine and dandy for an adult who drinks an occasional soda. For children it displaces other nutrients. It causes dental cavities,” Grammond said.
“When children become overweight or obese and develop Type 2 diabetes, it sets up a whole negative unhealthy kind of consequence,” Grammond said. “We understand if it’s a party, kids are going to have soda. If the kids are drinking it all the time, it is not a good situation.”
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