CSPI Petition Asserts that Sugar-Based Drinks are Unsafe and Requests that FDA Limit “Added Sugars” in Beverages

February 19, 2013

By Riëtte van Laack

On February 13, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (“CSPI”) together with a coalition of 10 public health departments, 20 national health organizations, and 41 health and nutrition experts, submitted a 55-page petition to FDA requesting that FDA review the generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”) status of caloric sweeteners (“added sugars”).  Although the Petition concerns all “added sugars,” that are “formally denominated GRAS,” including sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn sugars, invert sugars, corn syrup, and others, the emphasis appears to be on high fructose corn syrup and sucrose.

According to Petitioners, unsafe levels of added sugar in soda and other sugar-containing beverages cause, among other health problems, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, the metabolic syndrome, tooth decay, and gout.  They claim that sugar-containing drinks are the single biggest source of added sugars and calories in the American diet.  Consumption data show that Americans, on average, consume 18 to 23 teaspoons of added sugars (the equivalent of 300 to 400 calories) per day.  Teens and young adults consume half again more than this average.  Moreover, about 14 million people of all ages consume more than one-third of their daily calories in the form of added sugars.

The Petition presents evidence to support its position that “added sugars” are no longer GRAS.  In fact, it claims that there is a current scientific consensus that added sugars are unsafe at the levels consumed.  Sugar-containing beverages provide 50% or more of the added sugars in the American diet and typically provide no other nutrients.  Moreover, the Petition asserts that liquid calories (from sugar-containing beverages) do not cause the normal satiety response, and as a result, people who consume liquid calories do not compensate for the increased caloric intake by reducing the calorie intake in subsequent meals. 

Rather than proposing a level at which “added sugars” are GRAS, the Petition leaves that determination to FDA.  However, the Petition does note that various health agencies have suggested 10 grams (or 40 calories) of added sugar per drink as a reasonable amount.

Although CSPI has previously questioned the safety of artificial sweeteners, it now appears to endorse the use of artificial sweeteners.  In a footnote, it explains that it has concluded that “the certain harm caused by the 15 teaspoons of sugar in a 20 oz. drink outweighs the speculative harm from artificial sweeteners.” 

In addition to the request to revisit the GRAS status of added sugars, the Petition suggests that FDA:

  • encourage industry to voluntarily reduce added sugars in breakfast cereals, baked goods, and other foods;
  • encourage reduced use and consumption of added sugars through limits on sale of sugar-containing over-sized beverages and development of means of reducing the use of added sugars;
  • add a separate line for added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels (in 2012, a coalition of public health associations requested that FDA require “added sugars” in the ingredient statement – see our previous post here); and 
  • launch education campaigns aimed at curbing consumption of added sugars.

Under 21 C.F.R. § 10.30, FDA has 180 days from receipt of the Petition to respond.  This response, however, is ordinarily a statement that the Agency has received the petition and needs more time to respond.  In light of the Agency’s past record and other priorities (including deadlines under the Food Safety Modernization Act), we do not anticipate a substantive FDA response for well over a year.