Ban sugary soda from US food stamps- food expert

* Caloric soda “a huge part” of US obesity-Paarlberg

* Do food stamps affect obesity rate? asks panel chief

* Soda bottlers say they reduced calories 21 percent

WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) - Congress should ban sugary sodas from the $58 billion-a-year U.S. food stamp program as a step to combat the obesity crisis, the House Agriculture Committee was told on Thursday.

Wellesley College professor and food expert Rob Paarlberg suggested the ban during a hearing to review the 2008 farm law, which includes food stamps as well as crop subsidies. Food stamps help low-income people buy food. One in eight Americans receives food stamps.

The anti-hunger program accounts for 40 percent of Agriculture Department spending and outweighs crop subsidy and land stewardship spending of $10 billion this year.

“I would argue caloric soda should be made ineligible for purchase under SNAP, like tobacco and alcohol,” said Paarlberg, using the new name for food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He later said sugary sodas are “a huge part of the obesity problem.”

Committee chairman Collin Peterson told reporters, “It clearly is something we need to look at.”

“We need to look at what effect, if any, we’re having on the obesity situation. Is the SNAP program contributing to that?” said Peterson. “That’s the first question, before we talk anything about money.”

Lawmakers usually increase funding for public nutrition as part of the so-called farm bills written every few years.

First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled a 70-point plan on Tuesday to reduce childhood obesity rates within a generation. The report called for larger enrollment in public nutrition programs, putting healthier foods in school meals and encouraging Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables.

The report called for an analysis of the impact of local sales taxes on consumption of “less healthy energy-dense foods.”

Paarlberg, author of “Food Politics” and other books on food policy, said banning caloric sodas from purchase with food stamps would not hurt poor people because there would be no change in benefit levels. “Caloric sodas are not food,” he said.

The American Beverage Association, a trade group whose members include Coca-Cola Co KO.N, Pepsico Inc PEP.N and Dr Pepper Snapple Group DPS.N , said "there is nothing unique about soft drinks when it comes to obesity" so it would be unfair to single out soft drinks.

Bottlers say Americans consume one-fifth fewer calories from soft drinks because of a shift to zero- and low-calorie drinks and introduction of smaller-size bottles and cans.

Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Rebekah Kebede