Would You Drink Diet Milk?

Pushback against high-fructose corn syrup and sugar in milk products prompts industry to explore artificial sweetener options.

February 27, 2013

Would you let your child drink diet milk?

Sugar in milk, particularly flavored milks, is a growing concern among parents and school officials. In response to the backlash against sugar, the dairy industry wants to add artificial sweeteners like aspartame to flavored milks without having to label the change blatantly on the front of the package. (Flavored milk-based products are currently allowed to contain artificial sweeteners, the drinks just can't be referred to as milk.)


So far, the Food and Drug Administration has been flooded with more than 30,000 comments on the issue. "Based on these comments, we’re seeing a fair amount of confusion about what the labeling change would actually mean," says Mary Poos, PhD, deputy director of FDA’s Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements.

There are all sorts of claims being made about the dairy industry move...here are the facts:

In 2009, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation petitioned the Food and Drug Administration, asking them to remove this restriction, and now that request is open to public comments until May 21, 2013.

The issue at hand is really a labeling one. If FDA allows the change, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners will still have to be listed on the small ingredients label. But critics worry that without meaningful front-of-package labeling, consumers may miss the change and unknowingly be choosing milk with diet soda chemicals.

So why push so hard to add chemicals to chocolate or strawberry milk? It's a money thing, according to many critics. "As the pressure on sugar increases, companies want to get in on federal funds for school meals, WIC, et cetera," says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Paulette Goddard Professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, and author of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics. "It's an act of desperation. Sales are falling and they are looking for ways to attract more buyers. Sweet does it. But not if it has calories."

What the dairy industry submitted was a petition to amend the standard of identity. As it stands, flavored milk can still be referred to as milk if it contains sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. But current rules forbid companies to call a product "milk" if it contains chemical artificial sweeteners.

The proposed new rules generally refer to the change in "milk" and milk products like condensed milk, whipped cream, sour cream, and about a dozen other milk products, but, says Jamie Jonker, PhD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation, in the real world, what industry really wants is the ability to use artificial sweeteners in flavored milk.

"This is one place where a use of non-nutritive sweetener could allow for lower calorie content and the elimination of high-fructose corn syrup," he says.

To clear up some of the confusion from the public, FDA recently released this graphic:

"If we granted the petition, a carton of chocolate milk made with non-nutritive sweeteners would simply say 'chocolate milk,' the same as a carton made with nutritive sweeteners, such as sugar," notes Felicia Billingslea, director of FDA’s Food Labeling and Standards staff. "You would need to read the ingredient list, which is typically on the back or the side of the product, in order to tell the difference between the two."

Regardless of labeling, there are other problems with zero calorie sweeteners. Researchers have linked aspartame to certain health problems like kidney damage, depression, and—ironically—weight gain. For instance, one study found that drinking two diet sodas containing aspartame a day can lead to a 500 percent greater increase in waist size. Another aspartame disadvantage? Researchers have found that one harmful breakdown product is formaldehyde, a known cancer- causer.

"We don't need to teach kids that milk is sweet," says Chef Ann Cooper, an advocate for healthy school lunches. "We need to teach them to eat fruits and vegetables."

Not so sweet on chemicals in your milk? You've got options:

Speak up. The FDA still hasn't decided to allow artificial sweeteners in milk. The comment period is open until May 21, 2013. Visit the FDA's Regulations.gov page for directions on how to comment on the issue, listed as Docket No: FDA-2009-P-0147.

Seek organic. Whether this rule passes or not, you'll be able to safely avoid aspartame in milk by choosing organic brands, which are held to standards under which chemical sweeteners are strictly forbidden.

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