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Bittersweet Milk?

As some school districts ban flavored milk altogether, sweetened milk continues to be a controversial subject around the country because of non-nutritive sweeteners.

So what’s all the fuss about?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced it was accepting public comments on a proposed amendment to revise labeling requirements for sweetened milk and milk products.

The amendment, proposed by the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation, would allow for the addition of artificial sweeteners in flavored milk and milk products without the need for an additional label on the front of the package (“Reduced calorie” or “Lower sugar,” for example). This distinction is currently required by the FDA.

Why did the dairy industry propose this change?

“This request was needed in order for milk producers to be able to continue to label flavored milk as milk due to a regulation called ‘standard of identity,’” according to Connie Diekman, Past President of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, member of the Aspartame Advisory Group and National Dairy Council Health and Wellness Advisory Panel. “Standards of identity are legal standards, defined by the FDA, for foods regarding a food’s minimum quality specifications, including permitted ingredients and processing requirements.”

“A wide variety of foods are covered by the standards of identity, not just dairy foods, and it is because of these standards that the dairy industry had to petition the FDA asking to label flavored milk with non-nutritive sweeteners as milk,” said Diekman.

 Connie Diekman, RD

Isn’t flavored milk already sweetened?

Yes. In fact, some of the schools that banned flavored milk did so in an effort to reduce obesity by eliminating sugary drinks with higher calories. Flavored milk contains sweeteners, such as sugar, and these ingredients have always been listed on the ingredient label, and will continue to be listed on the ingredient label.

Why are milk companies trying to hide what’s in milk?

Actually, they’re not. Every ingredient will be included on the ingredient label. The only change that’s being proposed is that the words “lower calorie” could be taken off the front of the package so that the product can be on a more level playing field with other drinks that do not require a separate label for alternative sweeteners (like sports and energy drinks). 

“Nowhere in the petition from NMPF and IDFA is there a request to not list the non-nutritive sweetener on the list of ingredients. The only goal of the petition is to allow flavored milk with “any safe and suitable” sweetener to still be called milk,” said Diekman.

The dairy industry says a “reduced calorie” or “lower sugar” label on the front of milk products will discourage kids from drinking milk because those labels don’t appeal to them. And by using artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, flavored milk can be offered at schools as a lower calorie option to help combat obesity while providing essential nutrients found in milk.

A lot of consumers are concerned about this proposed amendment. In fact, the consumer group SumofUs.org started an online petition, which already has more than 100,000 signatures of those opposed to the dairy industry petition.

Why the opposition?

Some consumers feel like the dairy petition lacks transparency and the industry is trying to hide ingredients in milk. And some believe the addition of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame may not help in the fight against obesity. One recent study published in the January 2013 issue of Appetite, suggested that the consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners including aspartame and saccharin could lead to weight gain as compared with the consumption of regular sugar, when the amount of calories consumed was similar. Per the conclusions, the researchers “speculate that a decrease in energy expenditure or increase in fluid retention might be involved” in this weight gain.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics evidence analysis library reports that a systematic review of scientific literature shows that the “use of aspartame and aspartame-sweetened products as part of a comprehensive weight loss or maintenance program by individuals may be associated with greater weight loss and may assist individuals with weight maintenance over time.”

The dairy industry feels this move will promote healthier eating practices and will help kids get essential nutrients found in milk without the added calories, especially those kids who prefer chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk instead of plain milk.

What are your thoughts on this proposal?

Do you think the FDA should allow artificial sweeteners to be added to milk without front-of-packaging labeling?

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