Judge nixes ban on large ‘sugary drinks’ that really aren’t

Posted by
March 19, 2013

This 20-ounce Coke contains over ten teaspoons (shown here) of the test-tube sweetener HFCS

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sales of so-called “sugary drinks” in super-size containers bit the dust last week when state Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling rejected Bloomberg’s prohibition as “arbitrary and capricious.”

New York City delis, restaurants, food carts and movie theaters had all readied for the new rule, due to go into effect today, which prohibited them from offering certain caloric drinks to customers in containers any larger than 16 ounces. The court decision, according to one expert, “invalidated” the measure, meaning short of an appeal by Bloomberg and a higher state court overruling Tingling, the city can’t enforce it.

The proposed ban had numerous exemptions, such as a free pass on any size diet drink, as well as beverages containing over 50 percent milk or soy “milk” (curiously enough, beverages made from almonds and rice were not exempt, and also had to be under 16 ounces).

“We believe that the judge’s decision was clearly in error,” Bloomberg responded. But the biggest error in the whole controversy was one that received virtually no notice amid all the hoopla it created. I’m referring to both the mayor’s and the media’s continual use of the term “sugary drinks” to describe the items at issue in his war on obesity, while the high fructose corn syrup actually used to sweeten nearly all such sodas (and scores of other products) these days has hardly merited a mention.  “Sugar-sweetened beverages” and “large sugary sodas” are other erroneous phrases often used in press coverage of the issue.

While this may seem like mere semantics to some people, the distinct differences between real sugar (sucrose) and HFCS are substantial, including the fact that HFCS is likely to contain considerably more fructose than sucrose does – as much as 90 percent, in some cases. Recent research has identified excessive fructose consumption as an added culprit in obesity and associated health problems.

While the consumption of sugar has dropped over the past few decades, HFCS use, which first appeared as a mere blip on U.S. Department of Agriculture data in 1968, steadily climbed to a peak “delivery” of over 63 pounds per person a year in 1999.  On the other hand, sugar use per person was shown on the same USDA chart as being lower in 2011 than it was 102 years ago in 1909.

Even the Food and Drug Administration made the distinction between the two when it rejected a petition from the Corn Refiners Association last year attempting to rename HFCS “corn sugar,” saying that the term “sugar” inaccurately characterizes HFCS.

The varying fructose amounts in HFCS are now the subject of a petition that has been filed by Citizens for Health with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The petition asks that the FDA require a manufacturer using HFCS in a product to determine the fructose percentage in the formulation involved and have the label reflect that information.  The highest amount the FDA allows in HFCS is 55 percent fructose, yet popular sodas such as Coke and Sprite were found in studies to contain fructose levels as high as 65 percent, and a version with 90 percent fructose is advertised by one HFCS manufacturer as the “ideal choice” for low-cal foods and beverages. (Read the petition here, and add your comments here).

So while variations on the term “sugary drinks” may now have come into wide, if inaccurate use when describing what used to be known as “soda pop” (back in the days when it actually contained sugar), the fact remains that it’s high fructose corn syrup that’s actually in those beverages Bloomberg and other officials would like to curtail. And while the mayor and the media have both used sugar cubes in attempts to depict the amounts of sweetener these drinks contain, what they’re really talking about is the sticky, syrupy synthetic sweetener shown in the photo below which represents the 60 teaspoons of HFCS used in these three sodas:


Interestingly, the Bloomberg ban on super-size beverages would have exempted the biggie of them all, the 7-Eleven Super Gulp, which at 44 ounces would contain over 20 teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup. Perhaps if Bloomberg had shown that instead of the erroneous example of sugar cubes, well, who knows how his constituents may have reacted.