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Lack of knowledge on labeling fuels aspartame fires

Dave Wilkins Published on 28 June 2013

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series about the controversy surrounding aspartame in milk.

People are passionate about their milk.

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That much is clear after more than 40,000 public comments were submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concerning the dairy industry’s petition to change the standard of identity for milk.

If granted, the petition filed by the International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation would allow the use of artificial sweeteners in flavored milk without the need for any prominently displayed nutrient content information.

The petition also requests the same standard for 17 other milk and cream products including yogurt, sour cream and non-fat dry milk.

The petition requests the use of optional flavoring ingredients with “any safe and suitable sweetener.”

The consumer watchdog group SumOfUs recently spearheaded a campaign against the request. The group says it gathered more than 119,000 signatures in opposition.

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A cursory look at the public comments on the FDA’s website suggests that the vast majority are indeed strongly in opposition to the proposal.

Many apparently believe that the industry is trying to “sneak” aspartame and other artificial sweeteners into flavored milk without any labeling whatsoever, which is not true.

“The idea of adding aspartame to milk without a label is simply unacceptable,” Shawna Gretzinger of Missouri said in one posting. Gretzinger said she is highly allergic to aspartame and has met many other people who are too.

“Stand up to the food lobbies and label our food properly!” she said.

Rachael Hale of Oregon was equally adamant: “It is the responsibility of the FDA to protect citizens and to ensure that companies correctly label every ingredient added to food or drink products. To allow this to pass would be knowingly concealing information and is just wrong.”

Even some dairy producers registered their opposition.

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Chrishell Simmons of Tennessee identified herself as a dairy farmer and the mother of two teenage girls.

“Artificial sweeteners are not the answer. If a sweetener is insisted upon, look into natural, more healthful sweeteners like stevia,” Simmons said in comments submitted to the agency.

Adding artificial sweeteners to milk products without proper labeling would be a big mistake, Simmons said. The industry could lose public trust.

“Most folks see the dairy industry as honest and healthful; please do not jeopardize the integrity of folks like myself and my family and all involved, from the farmers to the bottling companies to the advertising companies,” she said. “Our integrity and good name is at stake.”

What many petition opponents apparently don’t realize is that all artificial sweeteners used in flavored milk products would still have to be identified on the ingredients list, typically found on the side or back of the packaging.

Nothing about the petition would change that requirement. But artificial sweeteners might be harder for consumers to spot because prominently displayed statements such as “reduced calorie” or “no sugar added” would no longer be required.

Many of those who submitted comments also seemed unaware that food manufacturers are already allowed to put artificial sweeteners in flavored milk and milk products. Many manufacturers don’t because of the strict labeling requirements, but some do.

Fred Meyer, for example, sells a strawberry lite yogurt that contains sucralose, neotame and acesulfame potassium. All three artificial sweeteners are disclosed on the front of the container as well as the ingredient list on the back.

Many people who commented are also convinced that aspartame is a harmful substance linked to a wide range of serious health problems, including cancer. For its part, the FDA has concluded that aspartame is safe to use as a general purpose sweetener in food and beverages.

So what happens now?

If the FDA rejects the petition, nothing changes. If the agency grants the petition, processors could use artificial sweeteners in flavored milk without any prominently displayed content messages.

Even if the FDA approves the petition, it doesn’t necessarily mean consumers will see any immediate or dramatic change.

Take ice cream, for example.

The FDA has already amended the standard of identification for ice cream in the same manner now sought for milk products. Yet the vast majority of ice cream still uses natural sweeteners such as sugar or corn syrup.

And manufacturers that do make ice cream with artificial sweeteners make no effort to conceal the fact. Sucralose and acesulfame potassium are both listed as ingredients on Blue Bunny “Sweet Freedom” mint chocolate chip ice cream and “no sugar added” is prominent on the front.

It should not be surprising that consumers and organizations that speak for them are concerned about changes affecting milk and milk products. After all, milk ranks right up there with Mom and apple pie in the minds of most American consumers.

Industry leaders are keenly aware of this, of course, and they take public opinion very seriously.

“The amount of comments didn’t surprise us,” said Peggy Armstrong, vice president of communication for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). “We value consumer input and are very interested in reviewing the comments submitted to FDA.”

If the petition process doesn’t accomplish anything else, it will at least confirm what dairy farmers have always known: Milk is different. Consumers hold it to a higher standard.

And that’s just fine. PD

Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.

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