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MercolaWatch:Aspartame and milk

by Josh DeWald

March 15, 2013

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Donate I swear I try really hard to avoid talking about aspartame all the time but it seems to be a lost cause. For the past few weeks, my news feed has been filled with various articles claiming that the food industry is trying to "hide" the use of aspartame added to milk intended for school children.

In a March 13 article, Joe Mercola added to the fray. To Mercola's credit, it appears to be completely accurate in terms of his descriptions of the proposed changes to the regulations, as well as the stated reasons. Many of the other articles out there claim that aspartame would somehow not be included in the information about the milk. This is untrue, as has already been debunked by blogger "dairy carrie". The actual petition as submitted by the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) is simply that aspartame -- along with sucralose -- can be added without having to call the end result something other than simply "milk" (echoes of my previous article on American Cheese...), more specifically not having to include the term "reduced calorie" and the like on the front label. Normal ingredient labeling would still apply, which was what many scare-mongering articles go wrong that you may have seen floating around.

It should be noted that this is primarily meant for flavored milk-based products (e.g. chocolate milk). These products naturally can already contain aspartame and the like, but they must carry the phrase "reduced calorie", which is actually the real intent of the petition. Additionally (and this is also covered by Mercola, though he disagrees with this intent) this is part of a national drive to reduce the (empty) calorie intake by children to curb childhood obesity. The reality is that kids are going to look for something "tasty" to drink and so ideally (according to the NMPF) a product can be provided that has the same nutrient content as whole milk, while having less calories and having a taste that children would enjoy.

Should sweetened milk be specially labelled?

If you read the label on normal low fat chocolate milk (one of the primary products under question) you will find that the second ingredient is actually sugar (part of what milk producers call "characterizing flavor"). But this is nowhere identified on the front labeling.
So I think there is a reasonable question of whether the "ends justify the means" for not disclosing the added (or not) sweetening agent. My view is that if the goal is to reduce the calories of a sweetened beverage (note that chocolate milk doesn't have to carry the designation that it has "extra" calories from the added sugar), then I don't see a problem with replacing the sugar with a non-nutritive sweetener to assist in that goal. It would make sense -- and Mercola hints at this as well, just a bit more vehemently -- to require the sweetened milk to actually carry the relevant designation that it is not simply "flavored" milk, but actually has additional calories from sugar. I regularly encounter people who are so against the term "diet" that they would rather a child consume a regular full-calorie product than something "diet" or "reduced calorie", which I am guessing is because anti-aspartame memes have become so "available" (recall the Availability Cascade). What do you guys think?

In any case, given that aspartame sucralose and saccarin are, to the best of our current scientific knowledge, safe for general use, there is no safety justification for having to call out its addition despite the claims of the second half of Mercola's article which goes into the conspiracy theories and poor science which claim that aspartame is dangerous. Assuming that any of that were true, than certainly it would make sense to have to call out aspartame, but its just not. I'm not going to cover any specifics of the aspartame debate here, I have a page on my other blog which links to my own content and other content from the Skeptical blogosphere (including a Skeptoid episode).

One thing I found interesting in the separate earlier letter from the NMPF that Mercola linked to, they actually argue that the nutrient standards for nondairy milk substitutes should be based on low- and no-fat milk because they are actually more nutrient-dense (as there is less fat taking up space) than whole milk (a table is provided). Mercola appears to have fundamental disagreements with the goal of reducing fat intake as a means of reducing obesity, but that's not something I've looked into enough to comment one way or another on.

I really just wanted to clear the air a bit on these updates to the proposed standards as they related to school lunch options. There is a national effort to reduce calorie intake by children, while at the same time ensuring that they get plenty of nutrients. Milk is argued to be a good source for those nutrients. There is no concerted effort to hide the fact that aspartame/sucralose may be added to milk products to avoid increasing their calories.

by Josh DeWald

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