Is The Dairy Industry Using School Kids As a Trojan Horse to Change Artificial Sweetener Labeling Rules?

Food activist Nancy Huehnergarth tweeted this troubling Dairy Reporter item last Friday, which indicates that the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) are asking the Food & Drug Administration for permission to add aspartame and other artificial sweeteners to the flavored milk sold in U.S. schools without certain front-label disclosures. The trade groups cite the current childhood obesity crisis and the popularity of flavored milk among kids as justifications for their request.

chocolatemilkNow keep in mind that the milk industry always had the ability to add artificial sweeteners to dairy products, including flavored milks sold in schools. So what’s going on here?

Under current FDA regulations, dairy products containing artificial sweeteners (with a recent exception carved out for ice cream) must not only disclose those sweeteners in their ingredient listings but also bear prominent front label notices — such as “reduced calorie” or “reduced sugar” — as part of the products’ so-called statements of identity. Yet now the dairy industry is getting a hearing on its 2009 citizen’s petition (PDF linked here) asking FDA for permission to abandon those front label disclosures for artificially dairy sweetened products — and not just on flavored milk but also on seventeen other dairy products having nothing to do with schools, including whipping cream, sour cream, nonfat dry mik and more.

It may well be that American school children really are the motivation for the dairy industry petition. The school dairy market is a lucrative one (nearly 430 million gallons of milk were reportedly distributed in schools during the 2005-2006 school year) and IDFA has been remarkably candid in admitting that the labeling change, if successful, might stem the current decline in student milk consumption. And in support of its citizen’s petition, the industry’s main arguments, offered without a shred of supporting evidence, do focus on children. It argued that:

use of the phrase “reduced calorie” is not attractive to children . . . .

and also put forward the (silly and rather circular) contention that

Children and adolescents are the largest consumer of flavored milk, but as consumers, they are not inclined to recognize that the milk they drink contains added sugar. Milk flavored with non-nutritive sweetener, which has less sugar than other flavored milk, provides the same nutritional benefits as other flavored labeled “milk” but with fewer calories. Thus, milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners should be labeled as “milk” without further qualification so that consumers can more easily identify its overall nutritional value.

But given that the dairy industry is also asking for changes with respect to seventeen other products, one wonders if it’s not using the appealing image of “school children drinking wholesome, lower calorie milk” as a Trojan horse to quietly overhaul the labeling of the entire dairy aisle.

Whatever the motivation for the petition, it’s hard for me to express how bad I think this idea is.

First of all, the front label “reduced calorie” or “reduced sugar” disclosures have always been prominent and useful tip-offs to purchasers that a product may contain artificial sweeteners or other artificial ingredients that many find questionable. To remove those designations from the labels of milk and seventeen other dairy products will leave many American consumers in the dark about what they’re actually buying. (Even I, an avid label-reader, have occasionally put into my shopping cart products like flavored water thinking they were entirely unsweetened, only to find later that they contained stevia, aspartame or one of the other non-nutritive additives I choose to avoid.)

Moreover, I’ve long objected to the notion that artificial sweeteners are some sort of a panacea with respect to childhood obesity. Putting aside concerns about the safety of these additives (and some experts are concerned), artificial sweeteners do nothing to wean children off the sugary food and beverage habit — and may even heighten a desire for sweet tastes given that artificial sweeteners are actually sweeter than sugar. Even more troubling, new Yale University research indicates that the regular consumption of artificial sweeteners may interfere with brain chemistry and the hormones regulating appetite and satiety, and may also pose in increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Do we really want these additives appearing more frequently in the milk offered in school cafeterias around the country, without adequate labeling?

I answer that question with a resounding NO. If you care to comment on the petition, as I certainly intend to, you may do so here.

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  1. says

    Ugh. So wish this issue would go away! So, after all the lobbying that the amount of added sugar is significantly less than that of soda, the dairy industry wants to sneak in artificial sweeteners?

    IMO, the problem with sweetened dairy drinks has nothing to do with calories – it has to do with kids being taught to prefer sweetened drinks. Milk is naturally sweet (from lactose, a natural sugar) anyway – sweetening it further brings the total sugars to the same level as soda…and the flavor profile to the same sweetness.

    More important than whether or not they are ingesting sugar is whether or not kids are learning to choose healthy foods. Sweetened (artificially or not) milk teaches children to choose sweetened foods.

    • says

      Great point, Michele. My husband and I were actually just having this conversation in a more general sense. We’ve seen lots of people lately making homemade “nutella” or homemade toaster pastries, etc., etc., and making those items the central entrees of their child’s lunchbox. Their reasoning: The kid will LOVE a nutella sandwich or a toaster pastry for lunch, but this one is homemade and wholegrain/lower sugar/whatever, so it’s “good for them.” Our puzzlement: Do you want the kid to get the message that a chocolate frosting sandwich is a good idea? As with almost anything in life, I think this flavored milk issue is one where we need to be paying VERY careful attention to the message we’re sending.

      • says

        Right. The key is not whether these things are individually good/bad (I have been known to make homemade Pop-tarts!) but whether we are correctly teaching our kids to define what is a “treat.”

        My main concern with school lunches in general is that they blur this line beyond recognition by “healthifying” treat foods. Kids learn to eat pancakes for lunch – they don’t learn to hold out for whole-grain, low-sugar, low-fat pancakes.

  2. Amanda says

    Stop giving kids flavored milk at school for one…and two artificial sweeteners are even worse than sugar and any study saying otherwise is a lie, not everyone may get sick from aspartame, but I am one of many who when unintentionally has anything with it in it because it wasn’t labeled, or I didn’t notice, gets a headache and not to mention some of its long term effects the companies are always out to disprove. I am so frustrated that they keep trying to sneak artifical sweeteners in everything!

    • Rebecca says

      If the FDA approves this petition, the aspartame could potentially be in 18 different dairy products in every grocery store across America. Even if we stop giving kids flavored milk at school, the artificial sweeteners will still be in the plain milk we give them at home. This petition is one of the scariest threats to our food supply I have ever seen.

  3. says

    Children will choose sweet/salty foods, our brains are hard-wired for it (a survival thing from thousands of years ago. Thanks evolution!)

    That being said, I oppose this for the same reason that pink sli… LFTB pssed me off: if you are going to put something in my food (even if it is something I like, such as Stevia) then TELL ME ABOUT IT. Don’t try and hide it from me. You WILL get caught, eventually.


  4. mommm!!!! says

    I would just like to stop doing battle with my kids cafeteria environment 5 days a week about what he eats there daily. One fight is fought and won and another takes it’s place. When does it all end?

  5. says

    Thank you so much for this post! I wasn’t aware of this new initiative and I can’t express how much it bothers me as the parent of a toddler who will be going to school soon and making her own choices for milk. All your points are excellent ones and I agree with most of them wholeheartedly–especially the whole “training them to eat only sweet” aspect. On top of your concerns, I have a few of my own.

    First of all, I’m a firm believer in companies having to declare plainly and clearly what’s been added to food so YOU, the consumer, can easily choose what you want to put in your body. In the case of a common ingredient like a sweetener, I’d prefer that to be on the front of the label or have something on the front of the label that tells me they’ve substituted something otherwise innocuous like sugar or fat. Scientific studies aside, I’ve personally never been been convinced that non-naturally-derived sugar substitutes (sucralose/slenda, nutrasweet/aspartame, saccharine, etc.) don’t have some unknown negative affects when used over time or in large quantities and there have even been questions about the more natural ones like stevia and agave. As a result, I choose to avoid them for both myself and my family. Nothing bothers me more than when companies are allowed to “hide” or disguise major substitutions on the front of the label.

    I too have bought products that had none of the catch phrases (low-cal, low-sugar, etc.) on the front of the package only to find on the back that an artificial sweetener was included–and I think it’s wrong. One example was a package of holiday “cranberry bagels” that was not marketed to be a low-cal or reduced anything. They sounded tasty and said “real cranberries,” so I tossed them in the cart. One bite and I could taste the Splenda. Turned the bag over over and sure enough. They must have used Splenda to offset the added sugar from the dried cranberries to keep the calorie count inline with their regular bagels.

    Second, I’m disgusted with the kind of marketing techniques they’re allowed to get away with. The one that comes to mind is, “Splenda. It tastes like sugar because it’s made from sugar.” Why that slogan has not generated hoards of lawsuits is beyond me. They’re very careful to not say it’s a natural product but the implication is clearly that it is. The implication is that if it comes from sugar, it’s natural like sugar. And it’s not. Sucralose, chemically speaking, is a modified sucrose (sugar) molecule that isn’t recognized by the body because it more or less doesn’t exist in nature. The body passes it through your system unabsorbed, making it “zero calories.” There’s nothing natural about that and being able to imply that it is even a close cousin to real sugar should be illegal…yet is not. :-(

    We need to fight to keep our labeling honest. I have no problem with companies being able to offer a variety of options and I have no beefs with people who choose to consume sugar or fat substitutes. But I want it to be my choice and I want it clear that something has been substituted on the front of the label. And if it’s offered in schools, it’s all the more important that my child be able to be taught to recognize it without having to learn to read labels.

  6. Rebecca says

    I’m so glad to see that awareness of this FDA call for comment is gaining ground. We must bring this into the public light. I think we have to be very cautious about how we think about this, though. This argument the IDFA and the NMPF have issued about “protecting the children” is spurious and specious. This isn’t just about the children’s school lunches; that argument is actually a distraction from the larger issue here.

    The real issue here, imo, is that they want to do this with 18 different dairy products, to include milk in public schools. Your yogurt, sour cream, half-and half, etc. are ALL threatened if the FDA approves the petition.

    And, just an FYI, there is another petition for a similar move in the fruit jams, preserves, and jellies realm. As of today, March 1,2013, we only have 2 days before the FDA approves that. The FDA has already announced that they are most likely going to approve that one, so we are definitely in trouble here.

    We must, must, must take the time to 1) go to the FDA page and register a comment, 2) spread this news to everyone we can, and 3) make this issue a political issue.

    Aspartame is dangerous. There are many scientific studies that illustrate it causes and exacerbates all sorts of serious medical problems: from cancer to seizures to diabetes, to obesity, etc. The list of health hazards of this substance is extensive. If you want proof of this, go to google scholar and search the topic. And, if we don’t stop this, it will be in virtually all dairy products, and we won’t know whether it is in those products or not, because it won’t be on the label – anywhere.

    What is the FDA there to do for us? If we don’t have the information to make informed choices, then the FDA is not serving its mission. And, I, personally, simply will not stand for it.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Rebecca: I wasn’t aware of the jam and jelly petition and I was alarmed to learn about the carve-out for ice cream. Thank you for sharing here. I may contact you offline for more info.

  7. bw1 says

    This is an outrage. There is a medically established allergy to aspartame that can cause fetal brain damage, and no one knows if it might do the same to young children.

  8. Comanche says

    Do we need anything else artificial! Please, let us try to get back to less chemicals, additivies and colors as possible. Unless it is natural, stop putting this junk in our food supply. BIK (Be It Know), I don’t want it in there in the first place….If it is put in there – put it in a sunburst right under their logo…artificial sweetners added! No tricky stuff – be up front with your fake ingredients!!! I want to see it as I approach the milk case, and be sure, I will let my fingers slide on by to something closer to natural.


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