Do you remember when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver filled a school bus with sugar (okay, it was really white sand) to illustrate the staggering amounts of it being added to the milk we routinely give our kids? The image was simultaneously stunning and revolting, as was his message: Those eight-ounce cartons of supposed wholesomeness include four teaspoons of added sugar. Times that by a couple of cartons of milk a day, and it adds up fast. Sweetened milk, in flavors like strawberry and chocolate, have been in the hot seat ever since, pushing milk producers to look more closely at zero-calorie sweeteners like aspartame.
Now, a 2009 petition by the milk industry to alter Food and Drug Administration regulations regarding milk standards (which have just recently become open for public comment), has school-lunch advocates, nutrition experts and moms ablaze. And prompted the consumer advocacy group SumOfUs.org to collect over 96,000 signatures opposing both the petition and the addition of aspartame.
But Christopher Galen, spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation, tells TakePart that the issue isn’t about which sweetener may be added to a milk product; it’s about what will be required on the label.
“It’s not about the sweetener; it’s about the regulations that govern milk products. If you remove calories, you have to have a disclaimer on the front that says ‘reduced calorie’ or ‘no sugar added.’ ”
The dairy industry doesn’t want to do that. They argue kids see those terms as something negative. So I asked Galen: Should the petition be approved, what might the front of a carton of chocolate milk sweetened with aspartame say?
“I don’t know if it would say anything other than ‘chocolate milk,’ ” he replied.
If you want to know if that chocolate milk was sweetened with sugar, Stevia or aspartame, you’ll have to flip it over and scan through the ingredient list—something I’m pretty sure even my 16-year-old wouldn’t do, nevermind a six-year-old who grabbed a carton of milk as she moved through the school lunch line.
Janet Poppendieck, author of Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, is very concerned with the news.
“I think it’s an outrageous idea,” she says. “This is a fundamental change. One of the ways the milk industry has gotten the school lunch program to consume billions of half pints of milk each year is by their enormous advertising campaign that paints milk as a very wholesome, natural food. I don’t feel they can have it both ways. This is changing the nature of the product.”
Not only that, she says, but it puts an added burden on school food-service directors who are responsible for making sure children are not exposed to allergens; some people are allergic to sugar substitutes like aspartame.
A media contact with the National Dairy Councils tells TakePart that the industry is just looking for flexibility. “All [the petition] is trying to do is to open a broad range of options. To have the same flexibility that sports drinks and juice drinks have,” she said.
If the petition gets FDA approval, the labeling changes won’t apply just to kid’s milk. It would also apply to dairy products like yogurt, sour cream, whipping cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk and more.
Related stories on TakePart:
• Can Chocolate Milk Make a Comeback?
• Everybody’s Crying Over Raw Milk
• Dairy Buying Guide: What to Know When You Buy Your Milk
Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Grist, Eating Well and many more. @c_leschin | TakePart.com