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Chances are you’ve heard about the dairy industry petition addressing artificial sweeteners in milk. And chances are that what you’ve heard is wrong.

Here are the facts:

1. Food producers already can add artificial sweeteners to milk and other dairy products.

2. The petition, from the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) — which was submitted in 2009, but is just getting a hearing now — asks the FDA to allow milk producers to include aspartame and other artificial sweeteners in milk and 17 other dairy products without having to include a front-of-package label saying something like “reduced calorie” or “no sugar added.” The food lobbyists claim that flavored milk is flavored milk, whether it’s sweetened with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame.

3. Even if this rule is approved, the artificial sweetener would still have to be listed in the ingredients. Here, from the IDFA itself: “The Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling regulations require all food products that use ‘non-nutritive’ (or non-caloric) sweeteners — such as Stevia, sucralose and aspartame — to clearly list them in the ingredients list on their packaging. This petition would not change that, and consumers would continue to see at a glance whether or not a product contains sweeteners of this sort.”

Also note the distinction in this question, from the FDA’s request for comments: “If the standard of identity for milk is amended as requested by petitioners, milk manufacturers could use non-nutritive sweeteners in flavored milk without a nutrient content claim in its labeling. Will the inclusion of the non-nutritive sweeteners in the ingredient statement provide consumers with sufficient information to ensure that consumers are not misled regarding the characteristics of the milk they are purchasing?”

Personally, I think the answer to that question is yes. Because, let’s get real here. Front-of-package labels are marketing-speak, pure and simple. As rushed as we may be while grocery shopping, as preoccupied as we are with kids and life, there’s simply no way to know for sure what’s in your food unless you read the ingredients. (More on that here: Stop reading labels and start reading ingredients.)

Trust me, I’m no fan of the dairy industry or artificial sweeteners (or commercially sweetened milk of any kind, actually). And I’m especially no fan of flavored milk in schools. But I am a fan of truth and accuracy and anything else that makes people take our food activism seriously. If we spread incorrect information, if we use faulty arguments, if we let hype or fear override facts, then we are no better than the Big Food manipulators we’re trying to expose. So, folks, take a deep breath, check your sources, read the primary source material and help us move the cause forward, not backward.

And then go comment on the petition, because, even though I think reading ingredients is critical, there are plenty of other reasons* to oppose this petition. And I believe in fighting Big Food shenanigans. So long as we fight them with facts.

*In my rush to post this last week, I inadvertently omitted this link to another blogger’s post on why the petition is a bad idea.

Postscript: I mentioned above that I support opposing the petition, but I’d like to note another observation (which I also mentioned briefly in responding to a comment below): Though the petition specifically mentions school milk, I think that’s because the dairy lobby believes it helps their case (with the FDA) to argue that children will drink more milk if the carton doesn’t say “reduced calorie” or some-such. Which doesn’t even make sense, since how many school kids are going to be deterred by that kind of labeling?

But I think the lobby is hoping this desperate ploy will push through labeling changes on all flavored milk, in school and out, plus those 17 other products. So it’s ironic (and terrific) that the school angle (which has raised the most ire) likely will cause the downfall of the petition instead.

And one more thought on the subject of ingredients: Merits of this petition aside, I believe — no matter the product or the label — that the only way to know for certain what’s in our food is to read the ingredients. Yes, some front-package language is there because the companies have no choice, but the rest of it is very strategic manipulation. 


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