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What’s the real story behind aspartame in milk?

Dave Wilkins Published on 10 June 2013

The way some consumer advocates see it, the dairy industry is up to no good.

The reason: The industry’s desire to change federal rules regarding milk labeling and artificial sweeteners.

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SumOfUs.org – a consumer watchdog group – went so far as to run advertisements on 15 metro buses in the Washington, D.C. area for a three-week period this spring.

The mobile billboards pictured a mouth-watering glass of chocolate milk with the message: “Got aspartame in your kids’ milk?”

Aspartame is one of the most common artificial sweeteners now in use.

It can be found in thousands of different food products – everything from diet soda to fat-free yogurt. It also seems to be the product that opponents of artificial sweeteners love to hate the most.

The ad went on to read, “Hey FDA, if the dairy lobby gets its way, milk marketed to our kids will become more of an artificially sweetened junk food. We don’t want that.”

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In 2009, the International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation jointly filed a petition with the FDA seeking to change the “standard of identity” for milk.

One of the primary reasons for the move was the industry’s concern about the decline in milk consumption in schools. Studies have shown that school-age children are more likely to drink flavored milk than regular milk.

One way to increase milk consumption in schools without adding to childhood obesity concerns might be to make low-calorie flavored milk a more appealing option.

But labels such as “reduced calorie” or “no sugar added” are a turn-off to kids, the petition claims. The industry wants to be able to market artificially sweetened flavored milk without any qualifiers and simply call it “milk.”

But is it true that qualifying statements such as “reduced calorie” discourage children from consuming those products?

“That’s what we were hearing anecdotally from people in the industry in 2009,” says Peggy Armstrong, vice president of communications for IDFA.

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“Since then we have heard from consumers who say they do rely on those kinds of titles to help them know what is in the product. A lot of consumers have said, ‘please don’t change that,’ so we’re listening.”

It was only recently that the FDA opened the petition to public comment. It’s gotten an earful. More than 30,000 comments were filed before the public comment period closed on May 21.

SumOfUs.org started a petition drive in opposition to the industry’s proposal. So far, it’s received more than 116,000 signatures.

The bus ads might lead some to believe that the dairy industry is seeking approval to put aspartame and other artificial sweeteners into flavored milk.

It isn’t. Processors can already put artificial sweeteners in flavored milk, but they’re reluctant to do so because of the restrictive labeling requirements.

So what’s the industry up to? Is it really lobbying to allow unlabeled aspartame in flavored milk as consumer groups claim?

Well, not really.

Nothing about the proposal would change the requirement that aspartame and other artificial sweeteners must be listed as ingredients on the label.

What would change is that flavored milk containing an artificial sweetener could be marketed without any qualifying statement on the product’s main display panel. So it would not be readily apparent that the product contained artificial sweetener.

“If we granted the petition, a carton of chocolate milk made with non-nutritive (artificial) sweeteners would simply say ‘chocolate milk,’ the same as a carton made with nutritive sweeteners, such as sugar,” said 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,” she said.

Billingslea’s comments were posted on the FDA’s website (www.fda.gov) in mid-April as part of a consumer update. The agency was receiving a flood of comments, not all of them well informed.

You can’t fault consumers or consumer advocacy groups for taking an interest in the issue. After all, milk is widely regarded as one of the most wholesome and healthful food products around, and children are often the target market.

“This is a very emotional thing when people start talking about milk because the first thing that comes to mind is children,” says Ruth Kava, senior nutritionist at the American Council on Science and Health.

Aspartame was approved as a food additive in 1981. It’s sold under the brand names NutraSweet, Equal and others. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar, so much less of it can be used to give the same amount of sweetness.

Aspartame is composed mainly of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and are found naturally in many foods.

Rumors claiming that aspartame causes a host of health problems, including cancer, have circulated for years on the Internet.

But consumers can be assured that artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA are safe, Kava says.

“As far as I can see, it’s reasonable to use artificial sweeteners. They’ve been shown to be safe. If you can get children to drink more milk as opposed to drinking something else with no nutritional benefit, I’m all for it,” she says.

According to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that aspartame is not linked to an increased risk of cancer.

A person weighing about 165 pounds would have to drink about 21 cans of diet soda a day to exceed the daily intake amount of aspartame that the FDA considers safe.

While most of the opposition has focused on aspartame, it’s just one of many artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA. Others include sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium.

The industry petition seeks the use of any “safe and suitable,” sweetener as an optional ingredient.

“We really wanted to update the standards to allow our industry to use innovations that may be coming online,” IDFA’s Armstrong says. “So if something is deemed a safe and suitable sweetener down the road, we would be able to use it.”

The controversy underscores the lofty position that milk enjoys in the minds of consumers.

“One of the takeaways that we have heard loud and clear from consumers is that milk is different,” Armstrong says. “It’s held to a higher standard by consumers.”

The FDA said it will review the comments and then “further evaluate the need for, and appropriateness of, the amendments requested by IDFA and NMPF and decide what further actions are appropriate.”

The agency did not indicate when a decision might be made, but considering that the original petition was filed more than four years ago, it probably won’t be anytime soon. PD

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

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