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U.S. sweetener group in battle over sugar-obesity link

 STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo., (Reuters) - A lengthy battle is brewing which will pit public health and nutrition groups against sugar, beverage and chocolate producers and will mimic the war on tobacco, U.S. food industry officials said Wednesday. Susan Smith, senior vice-president of public and legislative affairs for the National Confectioners Association and Chocolate Manufacturers Association, said at the 17th annual Sweetener Symposium that sugar and sweeteners like corn syrup are increasingly being blamed for the fact that over half of all Americans are overweight or obese. "Unfortunately, and it"s a really easy answer, (opponents say) let"s blame sugar. This is the easiest target for them," Smith said. "This is really just the beginning. They are looking at the tobacco model." The coalition turning their sights on sugar the same way they did on tobacco includes groups like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), surgeon general and the Centers for Disease Control, she said. The other groups would include nutrition panels and scientists linked to environmental causes who have denounced the "toxic food environment" Americans live in. 

The battle is expected to intensify after news that thousands of Americans will likely die due to complications resulting from obesity. Richard Keelor, president and chief executive of The Sugar Association representing sugar processors, said at the same conference there is a politics of nutrition that is targeting the sweetener business. "It"s going to get a lot worse," he said. "Certain sectors of the government have an agenda to reduce sweetener consumption." He said it was naive to simply blame consumption of sweets and snacks for obesity among Americans, saying the government should bring back physical education into schools to encourage exercise among children. "We have TV, we have computer games. We"re not teaching people to survive." Keelor, an exercise physiologist, said. "I think it will be a battle until we get physical education into schools." On the federal level, Smith said there may be attempts to set dietary guidelines and cited the petition before the FDA for the labeling of "added sugars" in foods. She said the industry is apprehensive about restrictions on advertising to children which may even include a ban on yogurt ads. Vending machines in schools may not be allowed to sell food containing sugar and there is the increasing prospect of "food taxes," Smith added. "That"s a real possibility." A group called "Don"t Tax Food Coalition" faces a tough fight on such taxes when state legislatures go back to work next year. Smith said her group and the American Sugar Alliance, which had been at loggerheads before over the U.S. sugar program, should join hands on this issue because of the threat linking sugar and sweeteners like corn syrup to obesity. "It"s going to affect consumption of their products as well," she told Reuters. Keelor added that top executives of beverage and food companies should also take part in a campaign to get the message out that sweetener goods must not shoulder all of the blame on America"s obesity problem. "We"re not getting much support from the food and beverage industry," he said in a separate interview. ^

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