(MCT) CHICAGO — In the face of troublingly high childhood obesity rates and what it sees as troublingly low milk consumption rates, the dairy industry says it has a solution: Offer kids flavored milk that uses low-calorie artificial sweeteners.
The only problem, the industry says, is that current federal rules on such products require prominent "reduced calorie" labeling on the front of the package, which is "not attractive to children" and contributes to an "overall decline in milk consumption."
So the industry has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow artificial sweeteners in several dairy products without prominent labels — just a mention in the ingredient list on the back.
The request has caused an uproar among some parents, consumer activists and physicians, who see it as little more than a ploy to sell more milk by confusing consumers about what's in the product.
The critics particularly object to the idea of marketing the milk to children as part of the federal school lunch program because, they believe, children are not likely to read ingredient lists. They also cite doubts — including those of government-commissioned medical committees — about whether artificial sweeteners are safe for developing bodies.
Dairy representatives contend that the move would improve health and level the playing field with other drinks that aren't required to signal their use of artificial sweeteners upfront. The change, they say, would allow them to place the milk in school lunchrooms. They have also requested permission to sell it in high school vending machines.
We "seek the exact same type of labeling that other beverages have," said Cary Frye, vice president of regulatory affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association, which led the petition. "We are not seeking anything special."
Opponents say milk is a special case and consumers expect it to be natural and wholesome.
"The only reason that the dairy industry is pushing to eliminate front-of-package labeling is that it knows there are concerns about these types of ingredients and (is) trying to 'hide' them," school lunch activist Ann Cooper wrote in an email to the Tribune, calling it "yet one more example of trying to put profit above our children's health."
"Perhaps we should just eliminate flavored milk from schools, as opposed to adding chemicals to it," said Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the federal lunch program, say artificially sweetened milk with proper labeling already is being served in schools. They declined to say when it entered the program or where or how much is being served.
But dairy industry representatives say their interpretation of the USDA's rules on school milk is that artificially sweetened milk cannot be served in schools because, technically, it is not considered milk under the FDA's "standard of identity."
That's one reason the dairy foods association and the National Milk Producers Federation have specifically asked the FDA to amend the standard of identity for milk and other dairy products to include those that contain certain non-nutritive sweeteners and other additives.
The industry filed its petition four years ago, but the FDA is just now seeking public comment on the request before it makes a decision. The agency is taking comments — http://tinyurl.com/d8w66c2 — through May 21, and consumer groups have urged their members to speak out.
The Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates a diet based on whole, nutrition-dense foods, said its members contributed many of the nearly 36,000 comments submitted to the FDA so far. Although fewer than 200 can be viewed online, most echo the sentiment of the commenter who posted: "STOP POISONING US WITH THIS CRAP!!!!"
The consumer watchdog group SumOfUs.org says it plans to present the FDA with a 115,000-person petition this month opposing the labeling request. The group also bought 15 ads on buses in Montgomery County, Md., where the FDA is located, reading "Got aspartame in your kids' milk?"
As obesity awareness has increased over the last decade, skirmishes over flavored milk have erupted in several school districts. A half-pint carton of chocolate skim milk served in Chicago Public Schools contains about 120 calories, compared with 90 calories for regular skim milk.
The dairy industry says about 70 percent of all milk consumed in schools is the flavored kind and that children greatly prefer it. Offering lower-calorie versions with artificial sweeteners, it says, fits in with "FDA's objectives to help children and youth develop healthy eating habits."
Keith Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said he agrees with that logic.
"You are seeing a generation that has grown up with a lack of enough milk," said Ayoob, a paid consultant for the dairy industry. "And the studies that are available show that when kids like flavored milk, they don't stop liking white milk. And if they like milk and would choose to drink it with no more calories, to me that's a win-win."
As a leader of the anti-sugar movement, pediatric obesity specialist and endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig might seem like a potential supporter of a move to sugar substitutes. But he isn't.
Artificial sweeteners "keep kids' taste buds primed for sweet, so kids will seek sugared beverages in other venues, even outside school," Lustig said. "The whole goal is to get kids off sweets and to resensitize them."
Lustig, who also worries about what sugar substitutes might do to a child's body, would prefer that schools serve white milk only.
The Weston A. Price Foundation says the proposed labeling changes also would make it harder for children and parents to make informed decisions about diet.
"We need to know exactly what is contained in products aimed at children," said Weston Price President Sally Fallon, who views artificial sweeteners as "toxic additives."
"This FDA action takes us in the wrong direction," she said.
A 2007 USDA-commissioned report by the Institute of Medicine — part of the National Academies of Science — specifically advised against allowing artificial sweeteners in foods sold in elementary school vending machines or canteens for several reasons, including safety.
Although many artificial sweeteners are legal under FDA rules, the scientists wrote, "there is still uncertainty, particularly about long-term use and about low-level exposure effects on the health and development of children."
Ayoob, the pediatric nutritionist, said he disagrees that the jury is still out on the safety of artificial sweeteners. "I believe the jury is in and they have proven to be safe."
So far, much of the controversy has focused on artificial sweeteners, and indeed they are the only sugar substitutes mentioned in the dairy industry petition. But Peggy Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the International Dairy Foods Association, said the emergence of newer "natural" sweeteners (including stevia) means it may be possible to create reduced-calorie flavored milk without artificial ingredients. These additives, however, are still considered "non-nutritive" sweeteners and face the same labeling restrictions.
SumOfUs.org campaign manager Kaytee Riek says her group's opposition to the industry's request is less about the safety of artificial sweeteners than about a consumer's right to make decisions based on clear information.
"It's not that we are inherently opposed to aspartame being in milk," Riek said. "We just want consumers to know when it's there. ... I would hope (dairy industry petitioners) don't want to be deceptive, but it certainly seems like they are trying to hide something."
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