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?

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.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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.

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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.

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