By Heather White, Executive Director at Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health and consumer advocacy organization
Milk is milk – but it won’t be if the conventional dairy industry gets its way.
Four years ago, the International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation, which lobby on behalf of the industry, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to change the official definition – the so-called “standard of identity” – of milk. And not just milk. In all, the industry wants to change the definition of 18 dairy products, including yogurt, sour cream and half and half, to allow it to add artificial sweeteners – without including any prominent label for consumers. Read the proposed petition.
The FDA announced in February that it is seeking public comment on the proposal, and that has sparked a national uproar over what’s allowed in our food.
The industry already adds a lot of sweet stuff to its flavored milk and other products. But if they add artificial sweeteners such as aspartame to replace the added sugar, they have to add a label on the front that includes a qualifier such as “reduced calorie” or “low calorie.” They can’t call the artificially sweetened product “milk” without one.
Industry marketers don’t want to have to put the label on the front of the package that signals that the dairy product could contain these controversial sweeteners.
Their stated reasoning? To fight childhood obesity. The industry argues that if it could get the okay to add artificial sweeteners into milk without a label on the front, kids would choose more milk drinks.
The conventional dairy industry doesn’t want the “reduced calorie” label on the front of the package, arguing that it distracts parents from milk’s nutritional value and turns kids off from buying flavored milk. The industry wants to change FDA regulations so that these controversial sweeteners would be listed only on the ingredients panel on the back of the carton, with no highly visible labeling such as “low calorie” on the front.
These clear front-of-package labels are important to parents because artificial sweeteners in kids’ drinks are a hot button issue for many families. If the milk industry gets its way, it will be harder for parents to know what they are giving to their kids. It’s true that we want kids to drink less sugary drinks, but we don’t want them to have more processed, unnatural ingredients in their diets. Surely there are better ways to get young people to make healthier choices without allowing the industry to get away with this sneaky legal gimmick to change the official definition of milk.
Although aspartame has been deemed safe after an independent review by FDA, it remains controversial. Questions of cancer or neurological problems have swirled around it for decades. Some pregnant women are advised to avoid it. And since some other non-nutritive sweeteners such as sucralose actually taste sweeter than sugar, some health professionals worry that adding it to milk drinks could lead kids to have stronger cravings for sweet products.
The controversy has highlighted the larger problem that consumers are largely in the dark when it comes to additives in food. Although FDA considers most of the sweeteners that would be added to milk to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, and some of these sweeteners have been independently reviewed, FDA’s overall framework for regulating the safety of food additives needs serious improvement.
The shocking truth is that the FDA has never independently reviewed the safety of the vast majority of the nearly 10,000 chemicals – both natural and synthetic – that can legally be added to food or packaging to enhance flavor and appearance, create certain food texture, or delay spoilage. About a third of the 10,000 have been reviewed by an industry-funded panel; most of the rest have been "self-affirmed" as safe by manufacturers. The reality is that most consumers are flying blind when it comes to what’s in processed foods. We need real changes to the law on how we regulate food additives, not on how we legally define milk.
No matter your position on the use of artificial sweeteners in foods and drinks marketed to children, we can all agree that consumers need more information about the food we eat, not less.
Call the FDA at (240) 402-2371 and tell it not to grant this industry request. The deadline for public comments is May 21, 2013. Make your voice heard by joining the petition to keep hidden artificial sweeteners out of dairy products.
Here are some tips for busy parents from the Environmental Working Group:
- Read the label. Always read ingredient labels and avoid products that have too many chemicals you’ve never heard of, or a really, really long list. Go simple when you can.
- Go organic. Organic milk is not produced with pesticides or added hormones. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame are not allowed.
- Plain is best. Skip the flavored milk, if possible, or allow it only as a special treat. Some flavored milks can contain as much sugar as half a dozen cookies.
- Go for plain or unsweetened yogurts and cottage cheeses. Skip flavored, “light” and “lite” yogurts. They are often loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners and additives. Instead, add fresh fruit to your plain yogurt or cottage cheese.
- Lactose intolerant? Dairy isn't the only good source of calcium – try calcium-rich foods such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, beans or tofu. Unsweetened, fortified organic soymilk, coconut, almond, hemp and flax milk can also be good choices. Talk to your doctor about trying lactase enzymes. Be sure to read labels to make sure you're getting good nutrition for your family. And, stay away from products with added sugars.