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Can the FDA ban cupcakes?

While this may seem like a silly question, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (“CSPI”) has filed a petition with the FDA urging the agency to regulate the amount of sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) in soft drinks. According to the executive director of CSPI, sugar is a “slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon” that causes “obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”

If soft drinks are a problem, surely cupcakes are too. A twelve-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar. A seasonally-appropriate red velvet cupcake from Sprinkles contains 45 grams of sugar—and who can eat just one? National cupcake consumption increased 52% between 2010 and 2011, and U.S. consumers ate over 770 million cupcakes last year. Sugary soft drink consumption, on the other hand, is down 23% since 1998 and 37% since 2000.

While the FDA can’t regulate sugar as a bioweapon, it probably could regulate sugar as a food additive.

Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a food additive is “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result—directly or indirectly—in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.” This broad definition would include sugar. The FDA does not, however, regulate food additives that are “generally recognized as safe” (“GRAS”). Presumably the FDA considers sugar to be GRAS—for now.

If the FDA were to regulate sugar as a food additive, it would consider “1) the composition and properties of the substance, 2) the amount that would typically be consumed, 3) immediate and long-term health effects, and 4) various safety factors.” Sodas and cupcakes often contain 40 grams of sugar—over twice the recommended daily intake for women. The consumption of high levels of sugar can lead to serious health consequences in the long term. According to researchers, “[s]ugar-related diseases are costing America around $150 billion a year.” This certainly seems like a big enough problem to justify FDA regulation of sugar.

But that would mean no cupcakes on Valentine’s Day. No cakes on your birthday. No cookie decorating during the winter holidays.

Or, at least, no cupcakes, birthday cakes, or cookies that were actually worth eating. The real problem with regulating sugar is that it is present in large quantities in some of the things we like most and eat only occasionally. While I could give up sugary soda, I don’t want to give up celebratory sweets. One heartening fact is that America’s sugary soda consumption has dropped significantly in the past decade. It seems like consumers are becoming more aware of the health risks of sugary soft drinks.

This is a good reason for health officials to focus on information campaigns rather than an outright sugar ban. This type of regulatory approach may improve public health while maintaining consumer choice.

Katie Booth is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and a Petrie-Flom Center student fellow. This post originally appeared at the Center’s blog project, Bill of Health.

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8 Responses for “Let Them Eat Cupcakes”

  1. john says:

    don’t regulate. educate. and fund the science we need to understand the public health problems we face …

  2. MD as HELL says:

    If sugar is a food “additive”, then what is simply a “food”? Do they get to regulate that, too?


    Who voted for that?

    • Peter1 says:

      “then what is simply a “food”?”

      I’m not surprised a medical doc doesn’t know what a “food” is. What advice do you give your diabetic patients about sugar MD? If you have/had kids, did you “regulate” what they ate for health reasons?

      A food is what nature adds, what man adds is an additive. Or more accurately, in our industrial “food” system, what a chemical engineer adds.

  3. Damon Braces says:

    Hi i had gone through your blog,its seems to be interesting and had a good information for the viewers.But don’t regulate that.

  4. JAMES MCCULLY, MD says:

    Good for you, Katie, for alerting us to the slippery slope of government regulation of our personal lives. The EPA has determined that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant—CO2 is to plants what Oxygen is to animals. The City of N.Y.and the NIH have decided that sugar and salt are poison—there are thirteen pints of sugary sweet salt water in the blood plasma flowing through our circulation—sugar and salt are not poison. What is really amazing is that most of the people who rail against the government interfering with a woman’s choice to control her own body, think they have the right to tell others what they choose to ingest into their body, whether they have the choice to wear a fur coat to keep their body warm, whether they have a should have a choice to protect body—and their family—with a handgun in their home, and on and on. Either you are pro-choice or you aren’t. The government is not going to improve our schools so long as parents won’t take responsibility for their children texting and tweeting instead of doing their homework. The government is not going to reduce gun violence so long as parents allow their children to sit in their bedrooms playing violent video games for hours and hours each day. The government is not going to improve our healhcare system costs so long as our citizens continue to consume drugs, shoot each other, drive cars while drinking and texting, eat ourselves into obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Our government is not the solution to most of our problems; our narcissistic, irresponsible citizens elect representatives of themselves. The answer is personal responsibility.

  5. Peter1 says:

    “The government is not going to improve our healhcare system costs so long as our citizens continue to consume drugs, shoot each other, drive cars while drinking and texting”

    MCCULLY, we regulate those things – don’t we? You opposed to controlling drugs, gun crime, drinking & driving?

    ” The government is not going to reduce gun violence so long as parents allow their children to sit in their bedrooms playing violent video games for hours and hours each day.”

    Funny, I’ve never seen a person killed with a video game thrown at them.

    “CO2 is to plants what Oxygen is to animals.”

    Hey doc, but we don’t breath CO2, we breath oxygen, and TOO much CO2 helps cause global warming.

    “there are thirteen pints of sugary sweet salt water in the blood plasma flowing through our circulation”

    Yes, there are also metals in that blood – but what happens when we have too many metals in our systems?

    I’d remove the “MD” from your name because you obviously played hooky on the science days in school.

  6. Elle says:

    I did not know that sunscreen could contribute to causing Alzheimer’s disease until now. I think it definitely is big news, considering how much health care officials have encouraged us to use sunscreen whenever we are outside.

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