Milk, Aspartame and the FDA: Why Front-Label Claims DO Matter and Why You Need to Act

chocolatemilkLate last month, I alerted you to an FDA citizen petition submitted by two dairy industry trade groups relating to dairy products and artificial sweeteners.  I told you how the dairy industry wants to change the “statements of identity” for milk and 17 other dairy products to allow non-nutritive sweeteners (such as aspartame) in these products without the prominent front-label “nutrient content claims” currently required by FDA regulations — phrases like “reduced sugar” or “reduced calorie.”

As you know, I am deeply troubled by this petition.

Not only did I submit a personal letter of protest to the FDA and encourage you to comment on FDA’s website and sign an online petition about it*, but I also gave up my entire Saturday last weekend to draft an open “sign-on” letter to oppose the dairy industry request.  That letter will be sent to FDA in the coming days bearing the signatures of numerous highly respected food activists, medical professionals, obesity experts and public health policy groups.  (Once it’s submitted to FDA, I’ll post the letter, with the complete list of signatories, here on The Lunch Tray.)

These leading experts all share my serious concern about the dairy petition and so it was with some surprise that I read a new blog post by a respected fellow food blogger, Spoonfed, who seems to downplay the issue on the theory that front labels mean little and, at any rate, consumers should just focus on back-label ingredient disclosures:

. . . 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.

To be fair, Spoonfed’s post seems primarily concerned with correcting a common misconception in the media that but for the granting of this petition, the dairy industry can’t add non-nutritive sweeteners to milk at all.  That’s not the case; this is an issue of front-package labeling, something I explained clearly in my first post on the issue.   But to the extent that Sp0onfed is also saying that these front label claims don’t matter much, I want to tell you why that position is just plain wrong.

First of all, yes, we all should be avid back-label-readers.  But in reality, many consumers do make purchases in haste or out of habit.  And if consumers have never before seen aspartame in their trusted brands of dairy products without a front label tip-off like “reduced sugar,” it’s even less likely that they will use back label ingredient listings to confirm what they already believe, i.e., that aspartame and other non-nutritive sweeteners aren’t present.

Furthermore, while Spoonfed dismisses everything on the front label as “marketing speak,” I can tell you as a lawyer with food regulatory experience that companies often chafe under FDA-required front label disclosures.  If it weren’t for those regulations, you can be sure Kraft would gladly call its bright orange, plasticine slices “cheese” instead of the clunky “pasteurized processed cheese food.”  Indeed, the entire dairy petition is premised on the claim that “use of the phrase ‘reduced calorie’ is not attractive to children” — i.e., that the required language anything but helpful marketing for them.  Yet as much as producers would like to abandon some of those FDA front label requirements, they serve as a good tip-off to consumers about what they’re buying — not as a substitute for reading back labels, but as a useful adjunct, one visible on the store shelf even before the consumer picks up the product.

But none of that is the critical issue.  We should all be less concerned about supermarket shoppers being misled (though that’s a real problem) and far more worried about the 32 million public school children participating in the National School Lunch Program and the 12 million in the School Breakfast Program, all of whom are offered milk — usually including a flavored milk option — each and every school day, sometimes multiple times a day.   And the dairy industry has been quite candid in stating that this “petition was and continues to be a direct attempt to keep flavored milks in school cafeterias.”

In other words, if this petition is successful, you can be sure we will soon see a dramatic increase in the volume of artificially-sweetened flavored milk offered in U.S. schools.

As a public school parent, that has me very worried.  Why?  Not just because millions of kids will be guzzling increased quantities of aspartame or acesulfame-potassium, but because their parents are unlikely to know anything about it.  Very few school districts offer full ingredient disclosures on their websites, but the majority of them use existing FDA nutrient claims (“low-fat milk,” “fat-free milk”) to describe milk on their printed and online school meal menus.  Yet if artificially sweetened chocolate milk can still be called “chocolate milk,” without any qualifier, parents will know nothing of a very material change in product formulation.  (A spokesman for the National Dairy Council, seeking to allay this concern, indicated to NPR that “school administrators would likely inform parents of the change by putting it on menus, websites and newsletters.”  But why rely on such scattershot and unreliable methods of keeping parents informed, when current labeling laws, if left unchanged, would ensure that parents know exactly what kind of flavored milk their children are consuming at school?)

For me, the bottom line is this.  The dairy industry’s desire to increase its flavored milk sales in public schools is not a sufficient justification for taking potential risks with students’ long term health.   To the extent there are any questions regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners — particularly aspartame and acesulfame-potassium — then we need to act NOW to prevent the flooding of American schools with artificially-sweetened milk, the likely outcome if the dairy industry petition is granted.

Have I convinced you?  I really hope so.  Leave a comment with FDA here, and sign here*.

Thank you.

As mentioned in a prior post, I want you to sign the Sum of Us petition on this issue because it has good traction (over 100,000 signatures to date), but I don’t like its false implication that but for the granting of its request, the dairy industry could not use non-nutritive sweeteners in milk products.  That’s likely a case of carelessness and not an intent to mislead signers.

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  1. says

    There’s something else that I think is being overlooked here and that’s the likelihood that kids will no longer have access to the original product as a choice. Given a choice between my kid drinking sugar or HFCS-laden chocolate milk or artificial sweetener-laden milk, I’d prefer she stick with the sugar/HFCS. In my opinion, it’s the lesser of two evils and we should have that choice to make for ourselves.
    But let’s face it… Most schools are not going to continue offering two kinds of each flavored milk. In fact, I’d bet dollars to donuts the manufacturers will flat out stop carrying the sugar-based product if they’ve been able to effectively eliminate the demand for it by not having to differentiate between the two anymore on the label.
    This happened, recently with Crisco, by the way (although, in this case, it was a positive end-result). When the reports about the negative effects of trans-fats came up a few years ago, Crisco released a new product in a green package that was formulated to be trans-fat-free. When demand for the new product exceeded the old product, they simply reformulated the familiar blue can with the trans-fat-free version and dropped the green can. Most consumers never even noticed.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Justin: Very good point. And I totally agree that I’d rather have my child drink sugar-sweetened milk than milk with non nutritive sweeteners. (I’m such a nut on this issue that I feel that way even about stevia.) Not all parents may agree with us, of course, but without disclosure, no parent will be able to consciously exercise that choice.

  2. Timmi Dobesh says

    This labeling crap happened to me the other day. I have been sick with a sinus infection and really wanted a fresca. The label looked the same as it has been for awhile so grabbed one withouta second tthought. Went home took a drink and yuck. Coca-cola has reformulated it to a zero product. Label looks the same except for that 0 calorie label, which is tiny. Their other zero products have different colored label why isn’t this one.

    • says

      I’m pretty sure Fresca has always been sugar-free. It’s one of the weird products where they don’t offer both kinds. They may have changed the sweetener recently, though.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Yes, that’s what I thought, too. In fact, I sort of remember from my childhood that it was sweetened with the dreaded saccharine. Or maybe that was TAB?

  3. says

    I realized I should probably add my Facebook (and other) comments here, too.

    As I mentioned on the Lunch Tray’s Facebook page, this post doesn’t mention that I still support opposing the petition. I also noted that this post doesn’t mention that I linked to your first post on the subject to explain why I support opposing the petition. My bad on that second part, however! Turns out that in my rush to publish, I never inserted that hyperlink. It was supposed to be linked to “other reasons” in my last paragraph. (Which it is now.)

    The thing is, though, even without that, I think it was a leap to paint me as dismissive of the entire issue. The excerpt you cited was in response to this from the FDA questions: “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?” To which I replied: “Personally, I think the answer to that question is yes. Because, let’s get real here…(rest of excerpt).”

    I then went on to say that even though I think reading ingredients is critical, I still think we should oppose the petition. My main goal with that post was correcting the persistent misinformation that had spread about the dairy lobby petition, so I didn’t detail my own thoughts about it. Instead, I pointed people to your initial post (or intended to, anyway). I didn’t agree with everything you said in that post, but I thought it laid out the myriad reasons the petition should be opposed (which is why I also shared the post on Facebook when it was first published).

    So we have no real difference of position here. Except that I am adamant — no matter what the product or what the label — that the only way to know for *certain* what’s in something 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.

    In this case, 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. (As you, too, suggested in your trojan horse post.) So it’s ironic (and terrific) that the school angle likely will cause the downfall of the petition instead.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Christina: As I said on Facebook, your inadvertent omission of that link really did affect how I viewed your post. It seemed to me that your post was not in concert with mine but in opposition to it, and since our readership overlaps to a degree, I felt it was important to explain why I disagreed with it. I’m glad that in the end we both support the blocking of this petition, even if we may get there by somewhat different routes!


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