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Ruminations on Aspartame and Milk

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Little rumination is required to reach this conclusion: Cows don't make aspartame. But they don't make strawberry flavoring, either.

This is relevant to a debate that involves a petition by the dairy industry to the FDA to change what qualifies as milk, a grassroots petition opposing the dairy industry's petition, and a burgeoning amount of media ink and national attention.

As reported by NPR, the basic issue is that kids are consuming less milk in school, and the dairy industry would like to do something about it. Sometimes, the kids are swapping water for milk; sometimes, they are switching to diet sodas.

And that's where the aspartame comes in. While the effects of offering flavored milks (chocolate, strawberry) on total dairy intake are themselves somewhat controversial, the dairy industry position is that enticing flavors do indeed help more milk go down.

The trouble with this argument is that flavored milks are sweetened with added sugar, and consequently provide extra calories. I checked online for the nutrition details of one prototypical brand of strawberry-flavored milk. The low-fat version provides 130 calories and 18 grams of sugar per cup. For comparison, a comparable serving of Coca-Cola has about 26 grams of sugar. As school nutrition standards rise, tolerance for added sugar and calories -- in soda or milk -- is falling. And that means many schools are abandoning flavored milks, as they have abandoned sugar-sweetened sodas.

To counter such trends, the dairy industry would like to replace some or all of the added sugar in flavored milks with aspartame. The controversial part is that they don't want to tell the kids about it. Specifically, the dairy industry is petitioning the FDA to omit any reference to "aspartame," "diet," or "artificially sweetened" on the front of these milk cartons, contending that kids will find those designations a turn-off. They would like to call aspartame-sweetened strawberry milk just... milk.

As all Shrek fans know, there are many layers to a parfait. Let's work through them.

First, the overall role of dairy in the diets of school-age children is itself somewhat controversial. There are concerns among some nutrition experts about everything from calories, to saturated fat, to contaminants such as bovine growth hormone. Many studies suggest benefits to diet and health when kids consume dairy routinely, but that may be because the prevailing norm is soda. Whether routine dairy intake is advantageous over water is far less clear. And while benefits of dairy intake to bone health makes good sense, it's worth noting that most populations around the world whose only dairy intake is breast milk in infancy have greater, not lesser, bone density than we do.

Second, there is the fact with which I began: Cows don't make strawberry flavoring. I signed on to the petition against the dairy industry's petition, because I believe in people's right to see the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on display. If aspartame is added to milk, you shouldn't have to work hard to figure it out.

But if aspartame-sweetened milk isn't just "milk," then neither is sugar-sweetened, strawberry-flavored milk. And while we can make the case that if milk is sweetened with aspartame it should say so clearly on the front of the carton, we might just as readily argue that if chemical flavorants are used to imitate the taste of strawberry, and chemical colorings are used to imitate its color, then the front of pack should list these chemicals as well. What's good for the goose should be good for the gander -- or cow, in this case.

Why the difference? I think it's just a matter of nonsensical convention. We are accustomed to letting "strawberry flavored" fill in on the front of pack for a host of ills in the ingredient list. A different standard for aspartame probably makes no real sense. The situation is analogous to all of the fuss over medical marijuana, just because we aren't accustomed to its medical use. Meanwhile, cocaine and heroin analogues even more potent than heroin itself are an established part of the medical pharmacopeia, in routine use.

Third, and finally, there is aspartame itself. A sizable faction in our population considers artificial sweeteners slow poisons. I receive an email almost every day from one such quarter, citing the studies linking aspartame to formaldehyde formation and associated harms. There is, as well, a well-established link between aspartame and headaches, and other neurological ailments, among those sensitive to the chemical.

But, of course, aspartame -- the sweetener in Equal and Nutrasweet -- has been consumed by tens, and perhaps hundreds, of millions of people for years to decades. If the substance had even remotely common toxic effects, they would long since have shown up as a clear change in epidemiology and national health statistics. They have not. We have less cancer, not more; and, for the most part, no clear evidence of increasing rates of neurological disease.

There is another problem with aspartame, however. It's sweet. Very sweet. It is 200 times as sweet as sugar when matched for weight. And that concerns me. I think we have it right when we refer to a "sweet" tooth rather than a "sugar" tooth. The message our taste buds send our brains is not specific to sugar -- it's a general message of sweetness.

That message induces a reward, and what's known as tolerance: The more you get, the more you need. So I have long been concerned that all sugar substitutes are at best a lateral move: they take sugar and calories out of your diet right now, but they help grow your sweet tooth into a sweet fang. That sweet fang then goads you to seek out sweeter drinks, dressings, desserts, sauces, spreads, snacks and condiments -- probably without even realizing it. By corrupting the palate this way, I think all sugar substitutes have potential to undermine food choice and the quality of the overall diet. I avoid them all.

So, at the bottom of the parfait glass, we find ourselves with imperfect knowledge, and imperfect options. Do kids benefit from consuming more milk? The epidemiology says yes, but only compared to a very questionable status quo. We don't know that less milk, more water wouldn't be trading up.

Should aspartame-sweetened milk indicate up front it's not quite the stuff the cow made? Yes. But frankly, the same standard should apply to strawberry flavoring, and whatever potion is used to make it. Is aspartame toxic? For most people, not per se. But for everyone, it is an intense sweetener that will likely make you want ever-sweeter food. Avoiding intense sweeteners is among the strategies I recommend to rehabilitate your taste buds, make them more sensitive, and teach them to prefer less. When you actually prefer food less sweet, you can have that cake -- and eat it, too; you can love food that loves you back.

And there you have it. In the good company of the cows, I am aspartame-free, and devoid of strawberry flavoring. Unlike the cows, I am done ruminating -- at least for now.


One final thing. If you would like your kids to be able to sniff out the truth about food no matter what the FDA requires on the front of the pack, my colleagues and I offer a free and proven program to educate them, and you, accordingly -- help yourself to the free Nutrition Detectives ™ DVD at

Dr. David L. Katz;

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