The FDA is currently soliciting opinions regarding a petition they've received from the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). In brief, the petition is requesting that the definition of 'milk' and seventeen other dairy products be changed to include the addition of "non-nutritive" sweeteners (such as aspartame) as an optional ingredient. This would mean that while aspartame would be included on the list of ingredients, it wouldn't be called out anywhere else on the label.
There are so many posts I could write about why this is a bad idea. I've already mentioned in another post about the challenges involved in not letting my family be a chemistry experiment at mealtime, but dozens of other bloggers have already covered that territory. Google 'aspartame in milk' and you'll find plenty of them.
What bothers me about this is the reasoning behind the petition. Putting non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame in milk and milk products is already allowed, but the label has to advertise the addition by calling it "reduced calorie" or the like. According to the IDFA and NMPF, however, "nutrient content claims such as 'reduced calorie' are not attractive to children." They also state that "consumers do not recognize milk—including flavored milk—as necessarily containing sugar..[and] milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners should be labeled as milk
without further claims so that consumers can 'more easily identify its
overall nutritional value.'"
In other words, milk sales are down and people are too stupid to understand what they're drinking, so let's not confuse them with too much information so they'll just buy our product.
Where do I begin?
I appreciate the fact that they at least stated the real cause behind this petition: they're trying to combat slumping sales. Of course, this statement was buried towards the end of the petition after several paragraphs detailing how this action would enable the milk industry to promote healthful eating practices and combat childhood obesity. Particularly amusing, however, is their assertion that redefining milk to disguise the fact that it contains artificial sweeteners would somehow "promote honesty and fair dealing in the marketplace."
Explain to me how allowing the exact same label be displayed on milk-as-we-know-it and on milk containing aspartame promotes honesty and fair dealing in the marketplace. The argument they're making is that the difference is called out on the ingredients list, but the truth is that they're counting on the fact that most people don't read the ingredients list. People glance at the label, process the data that is readily available, and make a quick value judgment. That's why products that claim to be "all natural" sell so well, even if there's nothing healthful about the 'all natural' ingredients. (Did you know that cyanide is all natural?) Many people buy wheat bread thinking it's healthier than white bread, but several brands of wheat bread have no more dietary fiber than their white counterparts. People would know that if they read the nutritional value information, but they don't. They just take a quick look at the label, see the word 'wheat,' and assume it's healthier. The requirement that added sweeteners currently require the label to say "reduced calorie" turns off some buyers (and attracts others, but apparently not the ones the milk industry is targeting: children).
At present, the IDFA and NMPF claim they just want to be able to add these artificial sweeteners to milk products that are already being sweetened by regular sugar (i.e. chocolate milk). However, the wording of the petition makes no distinction or limitation. If this is approved as written, plain, regular milk may suddenly sprout aspartame with no indication other than a tiny notation in the ingredients list. Given that there is evidence that aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are addictive, I can see how this could certainly help solve the problem of slumping sales.
The IDFA and NMPF know that consumers are largely ignorant of what's actually in what they consume, and they're banking on that ignorance. When's the last time you looked at both the nutritional information and the ingredients list of a product you buy regularly? Or even of one that you only buy every once in a while? Would you notice if your milk suddenly included an artificial sweetener in the ingredients list if the label stayed the same?
Pay attention to what you're eating and drinking. Regularly check the nutritional information and the ingredients list. You'll probably be surprised by what you see; I know I was. And I've drastically changed my shopping and eating habits as a result. You may, or your may not. But whatever you do, you should do it will full knowledge and awareness.
The IDFA and NMPF think we're stupid. Let's not prove them right.