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The truth about the aspartame and milk petition (and why errors hurt food activism)

Chances are you’ve heard about the dairy industry petition addressing artificial sweeteners in milk. And chances are that what you’ve heard is wrong.

Here are the facts:

1. Food producers already can add artificial sweeteners to milk and other dairy products.

2. The petition, from the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) — which was submitted in 2009, but is just getting a hearing now — asks the FDA to allow milk producers to include aspartame and other artificial sweeteners in milk and 17 other dairy products without having to include a front-of-package label saying something like “reduced calorie” or “no sugar added.” The food lobbyists claim that flavored milk is flavored milk, whether it’s sweetened with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame. 

3. Even if this rule is approved, the artificial sweetener would still have to be listed in the ingredients. Here, from the IDFA itself: “The Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling regulations require all food products that use ‘non-nutritive’ (or non-caloric) sweeteners — such as Stevia, sucralose and aspartame — to clearly list them in the ingredients list on their packaging. This petition would not change that, and consumers would continue to see at a glance whether or not a product contains sweeteners of this sort.”

Also note the distinction in this question, from the FDA’s request for comments: “If the standard of identity for milk is amended as requested by petitioners, milk manufacturers could use non-nutritive sweeteners in flavored milk without a nutrient content claim in its labeling. Will the inclusion of the non-nutritive sweeteners in the ingredient statement provide consumers with sufficient information to ensure that consumers are not misled regarding the characteristics of the milk they are purchasing?”

Personally, I think the answer to that question is yes. Because, let’s get real here. Front-of-package labels are marketing-speak, pure and simple. As rushed as we may be while grocery shopping, as preoccupied as we are with kids and life, there’s simply no way to know for sure what’s in your food unless you read the ingredients. (More on that here: Stop reading labels and start reading ingredients.)

Trust me, I’m no fan of the dairy industry or artificial sweeteners (or commercially sweetened milk of any kind, actually). And I’m especially no fan of flavored milk in schools. But I am a fan of truth and accuracy and anything else that makes people take our food activism seriously. If we spread incorrect information, if we use faulty arguments, if we let hype or fear override facts, then we are no better than the Big Food manipulators we’re trying to expose. So, folks, take a deep breath, check your sources, read the primary source material and help us move the cause forward, not backward.

And then go comment on the petition, because, even though I think reading ingredients is critical, there are plenty of other reasons* to oppose this petition. And I believe in fighting Big Food shenanigans. So long as we fight them with facts.

*In my rush to post this last week, I inadvertently omitted this link to another blogger’s post on why the petition is a bad idea.

Postscript: I mentioned above that I support opposing the petition, but I’d like to note another observation (which I also mentioned briefly in responding to a comment below): Though the petition specifically mentions school milk, I think that’s because the dairy lobby believes it helps their case (with the FDA) to argue that children will drink more milk if the carton doesn’t say “reduced calorie” or some-such. Which doesn’t even make sense, since how many school kids are going to be deterred by that kind of labeling?

But I think the lobby is hoping this desperate ploy will push through labeling changes on all flavored milk, in school and out, plus those 17 other products. So it’s ironic (and terrific) that the school angle (which has raised the most ire) likely will cause the downfall of the petition instead.

And one more thought on the subject of ingredients: Merits of this petition aside, I believe — no matter the product or the label — that the only way to know for certain what’s in our food is to read the ingredients. Yes, some front-package language is there because the companies have no choice, but the rest of it is very strategic manipulation.    

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{ 7 comments… add one }

  • susan swain March 14, 2013, 2:28 pm

    thank you! i looked at the citizen petition to the fda myself and had the same thoughts that the articles and petitions against it were not relaying the correct information. they have made it seem that the request is to add aspartame and other non-nutritive sweeteners without listing it in the ingredients. great clarification here!

  • Brittany March 14, 2013, 2:49 pm

    Yeah, front of the label is all marketing, and yes, we should read the back of the label anyway. That being said, this just does not sit right with me.

    1) I don’t think aspartame should be included in any parts of a child’s lunch. Period. And yes, when you’re at the grocery store you can read the back of the label and choose to either buy plain milk (no aspartame) or flavored with sugar/stevia/etc instead of aspartame. However, this petition specifically is targeted at school children and the milk they receive in school. Should “aspartame or plain” be an option for a seven year old? I don’t think so.

    2) The petition also specifically mentions several other products the milk industry wants to apply this ruling to. Not just flavored milk marketed at kids. Sour cream, for instance. Why would they need the option of putting any sweetener in sour cream? The whole point is that it’s…sour. Not sweet.

    I don’t know – it just feels like this will quickly turn a situation of giving an inch and having a mile taken…

    • Brittany March 14, 2013, 2:54 pm

      But yes, I agree that people should be more clear about what is and isn’t being asked for here. The first time I heard about it, it sounded like the milk industry wanted to dump aspartame in plain milk and give it to school kids without any labeling so kids would drink more milk since it would be sweeter. And that would be completely outrageous. I still didn’t like it after reading the actual petition, though!

      • Christina March 14, 2013, 3:57 pm

        Brittany: It’s true that the petition mentions school milk, in particular, but that’s only because the dairy lobby thinks it’s persuasive to argue that children will drink more milk if the carton doesn’t say “reduced calorie” or some-such. Which is completely ridiculous, of course, because how many school kids are going to be deterred by that kind of labeling? In fact, though, this rule would apply to all flavored milk, in school and out, as well as those 17 other products. And the reason those other products are included is because the dairy industry wants a blanket approval whether it intends to include artificial sweeteners in those products or not.

        Also, I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m pretty certain that schools already sell some foods with aspartame. There are no rules saying schools can’t sell foods with chemical additives (cuz, you know, if it’s approved by the FDA, well, what’s the worry?). So I don’t see why aspartame would be any different. But I’ll post again if I find definitive confirmation of that.

  • aaron March 18, 2013, 10:36 pm
  • Windy Daley of Texas April 11, 2013, 7:29 pm

    In my opinion:
    Milk isn’t really that healthy for children or adults. Try living without milk for a while and see how much healthier you feel. Check out the newest research about milk. We have had the corporate wool pulled over our eyes for so long. Think about how much hydrogenated oils we consumed as children, when the makers knew all along that it was not healthy. Milk may even be a cause of osteoporosis. Check out the reasons–and this has been going on for many decades–but has been suppressed. The current actions of the dairy associations have proved what kind of people are really running those organizations–and what it really means.
    I like to call it the “ilk of milk.” Adding high fructose corn syrup and aspartame only makes it worse. Milk is not a healthy food.

    • Lysana June 3, 2013, 11:51 am

      This is not the time and place for conspiracy theorizing about milk. Please don’t derail this post with your personal hobby horse. Go put it on your own blog.

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