02/26/2013 11:23 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2013

Artificially Sweetened Chocolate Milk in Schools: Why I'm Concerned

Food activist Nancy Huehnergarth tweeted this troubling Dairy Reporter item last Friday, which indicates that International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) are asking the Food & Drug Administration for permission to add aspartame and other artificial sweeteners to the flavored milk sold in U.S. schools without certain front-label disclosures. The trade groups cite the current childhood obesity crisis and the popularity of flavored milk among kids as justifications for their request.

Now, keep in mind that the milk industry always had the ability to add artificial sweeteners to dairy products, including flavored milks sold in schools. So what's going on here?

Under current FDA regulations, dairy products containing artificial sweeteners (with a recent exception carved out for ice cream) must not only disclose those sweeteners in their ingredient listings, but also bear prominent front label notices -- such as "reduced calorie" or "reduced sugar" -- as part of the products' so-called statements of identity. Yet now the dairy industry is getting a hearing on its 2009 citizen's petition (PDF linked here) asking FDA for permission to abandon those front label disclosures for artificially dairy sweetened products --  and not just on flavored milk, but also on seventeen other dairy products having nothing to do with schools, including whipping cream, sour cream, nonfat dry mik and more.

It may well be that American school children really are the motivation for the dairy industry petition. The school dairy market is a lucrative one (nearly 430 million gallons of milk were reportedly distributed in schools during the 2005-2006 school year) and IDFA has been remarkably candid in admitting that the labeling change, if successful, might stem the current decline in student milk consumption. And in support of its citizen's petition, the industry's main arguments, offered without a shred of supporting evidence, do focus on children. It argued that: "use of the phrase "reduced calorie" is not attractive to children," and also put forward this (silly and rather circular) contention:

Children and adolescents are the largest consumer of flavored milk, but as consumers, they are not inclined to recognize that the milk they drink contains added sugar. Milk flavored with non-nutritive sweetener, which has less sugar than other flavored milk, provides the same nutritional benefits as other flavored labeled "milk," but with fewer calories. Thus, milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners should be labeled as "milk" without further qualification so that consumers can more easily identify its overall nutritional value.

But given that the dairy industry is also asking for changes with respect to seventeen other products, one wonders if it's not using the appealing image of "school children drinking wholesome, lower calorie milk" as a Trojan horse to quietly overhaul the labeling of the entire dairy aisle.

Whatever the motivation for the petition, it's hard for me to express how bad I think this idea is.

First of all, the front label "reduced calorie" or "reduced sugar" disclosures have always been prominent and useful tip-offs to purchasers that a product may contain artificial sweeteners or other artificial ingredients that many find questionable. To remove those designations from the labels of milk and seventeen other dairy products will leave many American consumers in the dark about what they're actually buying. (Even I, an avid label-reader, have occasionally put into my shopping cart products like flavored water thinking they were entirely unsweetened, only to find later that they contained stevia, aspartame or one of the other non-nutritive additives I choose to avoid.)

Moreover, I've long objected to the notion that artificial sweeteners are some sort of a panacea with respect to childhood obesity. Putting aside concerns about the safety of these additives (and some experts are concerned), artificial sweeteners do nothing to wean children off the sugary food and beverage habit -- and may even heighten a desire for sweet tastes given that artificial sweeteners are actually sweeter than sugar. Even more troubling, new Yale University research indicates that the regular consumption of artificial sweeteners may interfere with brain chemistry and the hormones regulating appetite and satiety, and may also pose in increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Do we really want these additives appearing more frequently in the milk offered in school cafeterias around the country, without adequate labeling?

I answer that question with a resounding NO. If you care to comment on the proposed rules, as I certainly intend to, you may do so here.