Is There Aspartame in Your Chocolate Milk? Should There Be?

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 13 2013 5:33 AM

Quiet Diet

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

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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.

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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.