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Cutting the GRAS List: Sugar and Salt

February 15th, 2013

fda-logoCalls for revoking Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status on common ingredients seems to be the new norm for controlling excess consumption. In 2011, the American Public Health Association asked the FDA to “remove or modify” salt’s GRAS status  because allows unlimited sodium in foods. Now the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is trying the same tactic to limit the amount of added sugars in beverages.

In a press release, the CSPI names high fructose corn syrup, sucrose  and “other sugars” as being unsafe at the levels consumed. It claims that “ to be GRAS, there must be a scientific consensus that the ingredient is safe at the levels consumed.”

CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in the release. “As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption. 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.”

In addition to the overwrought description of sugar-sweetened drinks, the definition of GRAS is off the mark. According to the FDA, “”GRAS” is an acronym for the phrase Generally Recognized As Safe. Under sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act), any substance that is intentionally added to food is a food additive, that is subject to premarket review and approval by FDA, unless the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use (my emphasis), or unless the use of the substance is otherwise excluded from the definition of a food additive.”

From what I can tell, the intended use of sugar in sweetened drinks is the amount in an 8-oz serving. So, CSPI’s benchmark of 16 tsp. of sugar in a 20 oz. drink might be considered a worst-case scenario. After all if it’s a 20 oz. fountain drink, it’s probably packed with sugar-free ice, and I suspect given the preponderance of 12-oz. cans, that’s a more common serving size. But that’s less that 10 tsp. per serving, not nearly as dramatic. (Which I have to admit sounds disgustingly sweet, but I’m not a big fan of anything that sweet, including soda.)

Regardless, the concept of taking specific food ingredients off the GRAS list because of overconsumption in a specific product is a disaster in the making. Do we limit it to sucrose and HFCS? What about dextrose, honey or agave syrup? Does that make the sugar in a chocolate bar or the sugar in ice cream somehow better for you? And how does that address weight issues from someone who is eating too many cookies or too many fried salty snacks (guilty)? Does vegetable oil come off the GRAS list too? What about bacon?

I’m not saying I have the answer. (It might be interesting to cut sugar levels by a couple percent and see who notices, but that’s not going to solve the problem.) The collective we should not be taking in so many excess calories to the detriment of our health. But altering the definition of GRAS for safe ingredients just because we stuff ourselves silly is just a bad idea.

Source: Food Product Design

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