How should aspartame in milk be labeled? FDA proposal sparks angry responses

Milk with aspartame would not have to bear labels like "reduced calorie" or "reduced sugar" under a new FDA proposal. (Photo: Mario Anzuoni, Reuters)
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Trish Anderton

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is getting an earful from consumers on a proposal to drop descriptions like “low calorie” and “artificially sweetened” from milk containing aspartame and other sugar substitutes.

The dairy industry petitioned the agency for the labeling change in 2009. The FDA is now weighing the request. It’s seeking public comments at regulations.gov through May 21.

The industry argues milk is a healthy drink and a key source of calcium. Yet, it notes, sales of milk in schools are falling — and stand to fall even further as state and federal laws limit the amount of sugar and calories schools can serve kids in lunches. Children prefer flavored milk to regular milk, but “use of the phrase ‘reduced calorie’ is not attractive to children,” the petition argues — “so if the downward trend in milk consumption in schools is to be reversed, there need to be better options available for lower calorie flavored milk.”

While the proposed rule would downplay the presence of artificial sweeteners, they would still appear in the ingredients list, which is usually displayed in fine print on the back of the container.

The FDA has received 12,654 public comments on the proposal, according to regulations.gov. It has posted only 74 of those comments — but if this sample is any indication, the public reaction is far from sweet. Only two commenters favor the change, while 72 weigh in against it, often in virulent tones.

“I am totally against aspartame in dairy products without proper labeling,I have serious reactions to the product and will stop using all dairy in the future!” writes Shelly Bennett.

“Dear Big Brother, I have the right to know what is in my food, and the food that is fed to my children! LABEL EVERYTHING!” Lynn Benson demands.

“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MINDS? STOP THIS FROM HAPPENING. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?” wonders Karen Clark Nagy.

The FDA approved aspartame as a sweetener in 1974, but as nutritionist Marion Nestle notes, controversy about its use has continued to swirl. Recent studies suggest diet sodas containing aspartame may actually increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. But the Calorie Control Council, which represents the diet food and drink industry, defends the additive as “one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients ever.”

One of the two positive comments comes from the Calorie Control Council itself, which writes: “Currently, almost one out of five American four-year-olds is obese and this number will only continue to climb unless more low and reduced calorie options are offered to children.”

The FDA oversees milk under Title 21 part 131 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Do you think milk with artificial sweeteners should be labeled “reduced calorie”? Weigh in at regulations.gov -- and share your thoughts with GIMBY readers by pasting them into the comments section, too!