Proposals to put cigarette-style health warnings on soft drinks to highlight the harmful effects of too many sugary beverages has been called patronizing by the American Beverage Association, writes Anthony Fletcher.
In a petition filed this week with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has asked for the introduction of a series of rotating health notices on containers of all non-diet soft drinks-carbonated and non-carbonated-containing more than 13 grams of refined sugars per 12 ounces.
Suggested warnings include US Government recommends that you drink less (non-diet) soda to help prevent weight gain, tooth decay, and other health problems" and "To help protect your waistline and your teeth, consider drinking diet sodas or water."
But the American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents soft-drink manufactures, has denounced the proposal as "flying in the face of common sense."
ABA president Susan Neely claimed that asking the FDA to put warning labels on soft drinks, or any food products that contain caloric sweeteners, would be highly patronizing to consumers and open up a whole can of worms.
"Where would such a food "hit list" stop?" she asked. "Even skim milk and thousands of other food products could potentially fit into a CSPI labeling scheme because of the sugars contained in those products."
Marshall Manson, vice president of public affairs at the industry-backed Center for Individual Freedom, went even further in her condemnation of the proposals.
"This is nothing but another freedom-sucking proposal from CSPI," she said. "The nutrition nannies are at it again.
"CSPI's anti-choice, anti-freedom agenda is plain for all to see."
The CSPI however believes it has a case. It claims that teenage boys who drink carbonated or non-carbonated soft drinks consume an average of three 12-ounce cans per day, and girls more than two cans. Teens who drink soft drinks get nearly 15 percent of their total calories from those drinks.
And although adults are turning to diet soda, CSPI claims that its data shows that teenagers are actually drinking more high-calorie soft drinks than ever and less diet soda than in years past-despite growing concerns about obesity.
"Just as the soaring rates of obesity have shocked Americans, so should the increasing consumption by teenagers of one of the causes of obesity," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
"What was once a rare treat in a small serving is now served up morning, noon, and night, virtually everywhere Americans happen to be. How did a solution of high-fructose corn syrup, water, and artificial flavors come to be the default beverage?"
The CSPI also argues that it has the backing of the medical establishment.
"It is obvious to physicians who treat obese children that the extra 200, 300, or 400 empty calories kids get from soft drinks contribute to weight gain," said Dr. Caroline M. Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center.
"If you want to stop the epidemic of childhood obesity, curbing soda consumption is the place to start. Health messages on labels would certainly help parents and teens be aware of the risks."
The ABA however contends that the consumption of soft drinks has actually declined. According to the Beverage Digest 2005 Fact Book, the average American consumed 18 (12-ounce) cans less in 2004 than they did in 1998.
And Beverage Digest reports that calorie consumption per beverage serving has declined 16 percent during the same period due to an increase in bottled water and diet soft drink consumption and a decrease in full-calorie soft drink consumption.
"Soft drinks are a refreshing and enjoyable beverage to be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced approach to life," said Neely.
"Warning labels designed by CSPI will unnecessarily confuse consumers without providing helpful nutritional information. Individuals, not the government, are in the best position to make the food and beverage choices that are right for them."
Whatever the outcome of this debate, one thing is clear; obesity is a growing problem in the United States. The condition has now doubled in kids and tripled in teens since 1980, while nearly one-third of US adults are now obese.