Got aspartame? Dairy industry petition may open schoolhouse doors to toxic chemical sweetener

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March 28, 2013

The recent publication at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of a four-year-old petition from the dairy industry to alter the “standard of identity” for milk (and 17 additional dairy products) has set off a firestorm of consumer protest in the last few weeks.

Although nearly all the media and Internet reports on the petition were factually incorrect, the popular perception was that something sneaky was afoot. After all, why would the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) put themselves through all this bureaucratic hassle if some major underhanded change wasn’t in the works?

As it turns out, such suspicions were on the mark. For should the petition be approved by the FDA, it could conceivably jeopardize the health of more than 31 million U.S. schoolchildren by allowing them to consume flavored milk laced with aspartame – a highly controversial and neurotoxic artificial sweetener –  every single school day.

But not for the reasons you may think.

To get the lowdown on exactly what this petition is all about I went right to the source, the IDFA and its Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Cary Frye. (The most important news about what this petition will do, should it succeed, is something I’ll get to in a moment, so stick with me here.) Now, to hear the IDFA talk about it, current regulations which define “milk” – known as the standard of identity – are outdated and cumbersome to dairy producers. What they really want, according to Frye, is “to be competitive with other beverages that use no-calorie sweeteners and are less nutritious (than milk).”

The “standard of identity” for certain commodities, like milk, consists of  FDA regulations that provide a legal description of the composition of the named food and its labeling, including permissible added ingredients. The milk standard, as you may have guessed, says first off that something labeled as “milk” must come from a cow. It also allows for many other ‘tweaks’, such as taking cream out, adding cream back, adding vitamins, and  “other optional ingredients.”

Bundled together as “other optional ingredients” are colors, stabilizers, emulsifiers and nutritive (caloric) sweeteners, including sugar and high fructose corn syrup. What’s not included in the current milk standard are any “non-nutritive” artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. Food companies can currently use aspartame in milk (a fact that was widely misreported), but only with added “front-of-package” labeling reflecting the “nutrient content claim,” such as ‘”reduced calorie” or “sugar-free.”

The proposed petition – which seeks to add “any additional safe and suitable sweetener” to the milk standard — would not make such sweeteners “invisible,” as many media alerts stated, since all added sweeteners would still be required to appear on the ingredient label. And the petition would only apply to flavored milk, according to Frye, who said she didn’t think the FDA would permit sweeteners in white milk.

Giving aspartame access to the school cafeteria

So is that all there is to this petition? Some front-of-package label changes to make things easier for the dairy industry?

If this were just a ‘front-label’ issue, it would still be mighty important. Currently, if aspartame is used in chocolate milk, for example, if might be called “reduced calorie” on the front of the package. If the calories weren’t reduced enough to make that claim, it would be called a “dairy drink.” All of which provide very important hints to rushed shoppers who may not take the time to read the ingredients on everything.

But the really big story here should the petition go forward would be the FDA’s granting permission for artificially-sweetened  milk to be offered in both the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program, which it currently doesn’t qualify for. These two federally supported nutrition programs operate in over 100,000 public and private schools, providing low-cost or free meals to over 31-million kids daily. While state agencies and local schools can enforce more stringent standards, any participating school must meet at least minimum federal guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) .

For these school “subsidized” breakfast and lunch offerings, Frye told me, those minimum federal guidelines “…are regulations in place that say what those meals must include. And they must include eight ounces of milk” as described in the standard of identity for milk, which currently excludes the addition of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.

Should the standard of identity for milk be altered to include such sweeteners, “then the USDA will refer to the new standard,” Frye told me. Which means, in effect, that flavored milk sweetened with aspartame would meet the definition, allowing it to be served in participating schools.

And why is that such a big deal to the dairy industry? Well, it seems that higher-calorie flavored milk has been removed in cafeterias by a lot of school districts in an effort to reduce obesity, which is contributing to a decline in milk sales.  By offering low-calorie alternatives, the dairy industry hopes to reverse that trend – even if it means your kids may be drinking milk sweetened with a brain-cell-destroying “excitotoxin” that has been associated with brain tumors, seizures and a host of other adverse reactions.

Who will tell the parents?

While the IDFA stated on its website that “(t)he petition was and continues to be a direct attempt to keep flavored milks in school cafeterias,” it didn’t explain exactly how that attempt was going to work, or how important the standard of identity for milk is to the USDA and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.

Should the dairy industry succeed, how will parents know what kind of milk is being served in schools? While the sweetener used, be it sugar, aspartame or HFCS, will still appear on the packaging, it’s doubtful that kids in a school lunch line will be reading ingredient labels.

Greg Miller, with the National Dairy Council, told NPR that it’s “likely” schools would “inform parents of the change by putting it on menus, websites and newsletters.” But really, Greg, who knows. It will likely be up to the school, and since most just provide menus without disclosing ingredients, aspartame-sweetened flavored milk might just be described as “fat-free chocolate milk.”

The FDA docket will be open for comments on this issue through May 20, and you can read about the petition at the FDA  here, add your comments by going here. Hopefully, like another attempt at deceptive labeling that was defeated last year – the Corn Refiners Association ploy to try and have high fructose corn syrup labeled as “corn sugar” – the ‘power of the people’ will again prevail.