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Aspartame in "Milk?"

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Most of us believe that drinking milk is good for our health. Milk can provide us with some of the essential nutrients we all need, like calcium and potassium. And did you know... a glass of milk is also a terrific source of high-quality protein?

For these reasons, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends children and adults alike consume two to three servings of dairy per day. But somehow, Americans of all ages seem to be drinking less and less milk. And according to the Academy, only 25 percent of kids ages nine to 19 drink the recommended amount of milk each day.

One reason for this may be that schools have started to ban the sale of chocolate milk (and other flavored milk) because of its high caloric content. And in order to compete with other low-calorie drinks (i.e. diet colas) the dairy industry is planning to replace the sugar in flavored milk with aspartame, or another non-caloric sweetener.

The problem is, the FDA strictly regulates something called the "statement of identity" for food items. That means if you're calling something "milk," it better be mostly what came out of the cow. That's why we see products labeled Soymilk, not Soy Milk, get it?

Hence, the addition of aspartame as an artificial sweetener will change the standard of identity of "milk" and would require something like "Chocolate Milk" to be labeled, "Reduced Calorie Chocolate Milk." International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) recently petitioned the FDA to change this clause. They say children are adverse to the "low-calorie" label and that this labeling change will negatively affect milk sales.

And to avoid any confusion, aspartame (along with any other artificial sweetener) will not be secretly added as some hidden ingredient to flavored milk. There seems to be a huge misception out there regarding this. It will still be an added ingredient, listed on the ingredients label, just like any other additive. Even if the Dairy Industry gets its way... Fear not! You will still be able to tell if your chocolate milk has an artificial sweetener in it. Just flip over the container and look at the ingredients label: if you see "aspartame," "sucralose" or "acesulfame potassium" you will know that the beverage you're holding contains an artificial sweetener!

All artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, are regulated by the FDA. The FDA sets an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each sweetener, as well as other additives. The ADI is the maximum amount of a product that is considered safe to consume each day during a person's life time. According the the American Cancer Society, the ADI for aspartame is set to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns, based on studies done in lab animals.

Some studies suggest moderate intakes of aspartame is not harmful to your health, but research is not conclusive. However, the average person would have to drink 21 cans of diet-soda each day to reach acceptable daily intake. Sucrose, or table sugar, on the other hand has many known health risks in the excess we consume it. Still, the controversy around aspartame, including its possible link to cancer and other diseases, has many U.S. citizens concerned... and even outraged. Over 116,000 individuals have signed on to a Sum of Us petition that urges the FDA to "forbid milk and dairy products to include aspartame or other artificial sweeteners."

The standard-of-identity laws are there for a reason. So here is my advice for the Dairy Industry: If you want to put artificial sweeteners in milk, just start calling your "milk-like drink" something else. Leave the "milk" label for the real stuff.

To read the FDA's latest statement on this topic click here.

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