Quiet Diet

Are dairy producers trying to sneak artificial sweeteners into our milk?

Gallons of milk in the dairy products section can be seen on display at a new Wal-Mart store in Chicago, January 24, 2012.
Why is the supposed purity of milk considered so sacred?

Photo by John Gress/Reuters

The dairy lobby is trying to pollute our milk! According to an ad campaign now appearing on city buses in Washington, D.C., milk producers would like to make the pure mammary secretions of industrial cattle into “an artificially sweetened junk food.” The industry has petitioned the FDA for a change in the “standards of identity” for milk and 17 other dairy products, and if milk producers get their way, they’ll be allowed to dose our children on the sly with deadly aspartame.

Or so the ads suggest. Despite generating more than 117,000 petition signatures and rampant outrage on the Internet, the campaign against artificially sweetened milk turns out to be both misguided and misleading. Aspartame isn’t toxic, nor is there compelling evidence that diet beverages rewire children’s brains to turn them into sugar addicts. And the proposed rules would apply not to regular milk—the white stuff we add to our coffee—but rather to flavored milk, like chocolate and strawberry, which is already laced with full-calorie sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup.

Furthermore, contra the ad campaign’s implications, the industry petition before the FDA wouldn’t permit producers to sneak new chemicals into our milk supply, even when it comes to flavored beverages. Dairy producers are already allowed to spike flavored milk with aspartame, sucralose, or any other government-approved, zero-calorie sweetener. The proposed rules would only change the way those additives are listed on the package.

Currently, a dairy producer can make flavored milk with artificial sweeteners so long as two requirements are met. First, the sweeteners must be listed among the ingredients with an asterisk leading to a tiny note saying they’re “not contained in regular chocolate milk.” Second, the front of the package must include a prominent health claim, along the lines of “Reduced Sugar” or “Reduced Calories.” If the FDA approves the industry petition—it’s accepting public comments on the matter until the end of May—then both those requirements will disappear. (Zero-calorie sweeteners would still show up on the list of ingredients, just like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.)

This wouldn’t be a major shift in policy. A similar change was made for ice cream back in 1998, and the FDA has been sitting on a request to do the same for yogurt. But when it comes to milk—pure and wholesome milk—consumers tend to get a little jumpy. As of a few weeks ago, more than 30,000 public comments had been filed on the regulation, and many were alarmist and off-topic. “We’re seeing a fair amount of confusion about what the labeling change would actually mean,” remarked one FDA official in an FDA consumer update intended to clear up the confusion. The article went on to note, “People commenting in response to the federal register notice appear to be under the impression that the non-nutritive sweeteners will not be listed anywhere on the product—which is not the case.”

So why has this proposal provoked so much misdirected outrage? “As soon as you start messing with milk, it tends to bring up way more anxiety than any other product,” says E. Melanie Dupuis, a sociologist at UC-Santa Cruz and the author of Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink. She has traced the origins of a hard-core, “pro-milk ideology” to the mid-1800s, when nutritionists and social reformers first began to celebrate the beverage for its supposedly flawless dietary composition, replete with vitamins and protein, and to proclaim its ostensibly vital role in children’s health.

Flavored milk, with sugar added, trades on this healthy reputation: For kids in need of healthy nourishment, a spoonful of chocolate syrup helps the medicine go down. Sugar-sweetened milk became such a well-established part of American culture that the FDA granted it a place of honor in the standards of identity. Milk is “milk” even when it’s suffused with high-fructose corn syrup and a dash of strawberry powder. No asterisk is required for this “regular” flavored milk.

Different rules for sucrose and sucralose aren’t the only idiosyncrasies in the FDA’s rules for dairy products. Sour cream, for example, cannot be adulterated with artificial color: If you chose to make it green, you’d have to call your product by a different name. (“St. Patrick’s Dairy Spread,” anyone?) Butter and ice cream, on the other hand, carry an old and odd exemption to the rules on colorants: A stick or pint can be tinted any shade you want without a single mention anywhere on the label, not even in the list of ingredients.

These quirks of regulation can be confusing, especially since we’ve been encouraged for so long to think of milk as a kind of raw material—a simple, natural resource of the nation’s heartland. But as Dupuis points out, you can’t have fresh milk year-round if you don’t industrialize it. Since we’ve decided that milk can and should be pasteurized, homogenized, fortified, and flavored, the distinctions among permitted and forbidden additives seem arbitrary. What makes sugar more acceptable than aspartame? If we’re concerned about synthetic chemicals, then what’s wrong with “natural“ sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit? And are we sure that high-fructose corn syrup is more wholesome than a dash of Splenda?

The petition to the FDA goes against another of our intuitions, too: that industry always has the pitch in mind. If they’d like to dope our milk with aspartame, we assume it’s so they can turn around and market “diet milk.” That gets the proposed rule change exactly backward, though. Producers aren’t looking for the chance to add “low-calorie” or “less sugar” claims to the label (as some news outlets have erroneously reported). They’re asking for the right to leave them off.

The real story here is that the dairy groups would like to cut the calories in chocolate milk and then push the stuff as if it hadn’t changed at all. That makes sense when you consider that rules on marketing beverages to kids are getting more restrictive, in the hopes of curbing rates of childhood obesity. At least three-quarters of the 50 states have enacted limits of some kind on drinks and snacks in schools, threatening an estimated $2.3 billion market in campus vending machines and other so-called “competitive foods.” Some schools have blocked the sale of soda; others have placed a ban on flavored milk.

Then in February, the Department of Agriculture proposed a set of snack-food standards for every public school in the nation. If they’re made official, kids would be allowed to have flavored, nonfat milk, but soft drinks would be limited to 75 calories per can, and only sold in high schools. In the face of all this regulation—not to mention sugar’s recent PR crisis—the market for full-calorie beverages is under heavy threat.

That’s why we’re seeing “diet” on the down-low. Beverage companies have begun to wean their customers off standard soda recipes, in an attempt to satisfy both public health advocates and consumers who otherwise avoid reduced-calorie products. This triangulating trend developed overseas: For the European market, Coca-Cola adulterates its Fanta with acesulfame-K and aspartame, and slips stevia into its cans of Sprite. The secret diet products have one-third fewer calories than they would if made entirely with sugar, but you wouldn’t know it unless you checked the back of the can.

Now milk producers would like to do the same. By reformulating regular flavored milk using FDA-approved ingredients, they’ve managed to reduce the sugar by at least one-third in recent years, according to the National Dairy Council. But the reformulated flavored milk still has an average of about 134 calories per serving—30 percent more than regular milk. (For comparison, a can of full-sugared Coke has 140 calories.) To get that number down a little further without sacrificing sweetness, the industry would like to swap out a bit of sugar for some aspartame. Shhh, don’t tell the children!

That may sound like subterfuge—a way of hiding cauliflower in kids’ mashed potatoes (at best) or slipping them a mickey (at worst). But the dairy-makers, like others in the beverage business, are only struggling to navigate a pair of contradictory consumer fears: of sugar on the one hand, and sugar substitutes on the other.