By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
The latest childhood food controversy is in full swing. This time, it’s about the labeling of chocolate milk. Not just chocolate milk, but chocolate milk with added artificial sweeteners. In short: diet chocolate milk.
International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) have asked the FDA to amend the standard of identity for milk product so front of package claims like “reduced calorie” are not required when artificial sweeteners are used. They say these claims turn off children to such products, that are lower in sugar and calories, and can help with childhood obesity.
Is this something worth doing? Let’s check it out.
The basis for the debate
The FDA maintains standards for different categories of food items also called “standard of identity.” This means not any product can call be named milk or sour cream — they need to meet certain standards of identity for the food product. Currently the FDA has 300 identity standards in 20 categories including dairy products like milk.
According to CDR 131.110, milk may contain non-nutritive sweeteners (like aspartame) if the label carries a content claim such as “reduced calorie.” The IDFA and NMPF jointly petitioned the FDA in 2009 to amend the identity for milk and 17 other dairy products to allow the use of “any safe and suitable” sweetener, such as non-nutritive ones, without calling the product out as lower calorie on the front of package.
According to the proposal, Flavored Milk: Petition to Amend the Standard of Identity for Milk and 17 Additional Dairy Products: “IDFA and NMPF argue that nutrient content claims such as “reduced calorie” are not attractive to children, and maintain that consumers can more easily identify the overall nutritional value of milk products that are flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners if the labels do not include such claims…. IDFA and NMPF state that the proposed amendments would promote more healthful eating practices and reduce childhood obesity by providing for lower-calorie flavored milk products. They state that lower-calorie flavored milk would particularly benefit school children who, according to IDFA and NMPF, are more inclined to drink flavored milk than unflavored milk at school.”
Will these drinks help obesity?
As for more kids drinking lower-calorie beverages to help with obesity, there is not good data that shows this will be the case. In fact, a 2010 study published in Pediatric Obesity reviewing 18 studies found an association between artificially-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain in children. One hypothesis is that sweet taste, with or without calories, increases one’s preferences for sweets. Overall the research is mixed, but a clear benefit to obesity is not established. (For more on the weight gain debate see this WebMD article).
Since the petition was filed, there have more questions about negative health outcomes from drinking beverages with artificial sweeteners, like diet soda. For example, one 2012 study with older Americans found that drinking diet soda every day was linked to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Now this doesn’t mean artificial sweeteners cause stroke but these kinds of studies should put us on alert.
Is the labeling unfair?
The other argument is the “reduced calorie” label turns kids off and misleads them of what the product is all about. This may be true, and there is no doubt that the benefits of milk are still there which is also true for regular chocolate milk. But this is true for any product label — people make judgments that we can’t control.
Recently I bought some fruit bars at the store and had no idea they had artificial sweeteners (quick impulse buy). I wish there was something on the front of package to alert me because I wouldn’t have bought them. And I feel the same way about milk — front of label claims alert individuals that artificial sweeteners are used in the product. Yes, they can still read the ingredient line on the back, but until we have more studies that show these ingredients actually help with health and weight, I don’t think now is the time to change labeling laws.
For more reactions from moms check out popular mom bloggers: Bettina Siegel at The Lunch Tray and Sally Kuzemchak at Real Mom Nutrition. And don’t forget that the FDA is taking comments on this petition so let your voice be heard.
What’s your reaction to all of this?