Aspartame In Milk Without Additional Labels? New FDA Petition Asks For Rule Change

Melissa Stusinski

Commentary | We could see aspartame in milk soon (with no additional labeling) should the dairy industry be successful in petitioning the FDA for permission.

The artificial sugar substitute is already used in a broad range of products like diet soda and yogurt. It also goes under the brand-name Equal, though Equal includes other ingredients as well.

Aspartame in milk without extra labeling became a possibility as of last week when the FDA acknowledged a petition from the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation(NMPF), which was filed in 2009.

The Huffington Post reports that the petition asks permission by dairy lobbyists to include artificial sweeteners in milk, along with other dairy products, without requiring a prominent label.

The petition immediately garnered criticism from those who oppose aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. The ingredient has been blamed for causing cancer. It was also the subject of a recent study that claims the ingredient causes changes in a person's brain chemistry, making them crave high-calorie foods.

The research has been disregarded by dairy lobbyists, who claim that adding aspartame would actually make the milk healthier. The news that the FDA is considering allowing milk in aspartame made its way quickly through social media. It was so concerning to some that popular debunking website Snopes wrote an article to explain it is true.

The main difference that the dairy industry is asking for has to do with labeling. They are already allowed to use artificial sweeteners in milk as long as they are properly labeled. The new petition, however, would make it so that the industry can add artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, without a prominent label.

Instead of a large "reduced calorie" or "reduced sugar" label on the front of the milk carton, they would be allowed to put it on the back or simply add it to the list of ingredients on the nutrition label.

The petition is concerning, especially for people who like to know what goes into the products that they eat. There are already petitions in places like California and Washington to require more labeling on foods, specifically on genetically modified foods (GMOs). Therefore, a petition by the dairy industry to allow less labeling seems like a step in the wrong direction.

The petition would require someone concerned about the food they eat to look even closer at milk to make sure it doesn't contain aspartame or another artificial sweetener. The petition specifically targets the attractiveness of milk to children. It reads, in part:

"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."
"Further, the petitioners assert that consumers do not recognize milk -- including flavored milk -- as necessarily containing sugar. Accordingly, the petitioners state that milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners should be labeled as milk without further claims so that consumers can 'more easily identify its overall nutritional value.' "

The FDA issued a 90-day notice on February 20, 2013, requesting comments, data, and information about the petition. The milk industry is facing a decline with the growing popularity of soy, rice, almond, and coconut milk. But it is not likely that the labeling change would help the dairy industry gain back its former customers, who have switched to the other milk products for a variety of reasons.

Several have switched over lactose-intolerance or a milk allergy, while others have switched because they believe the other options are healthier. Those who switched voluntarily would be even less likely to switch back if they knew the dairy industry was using artificial sweeteners with discrete labeling involved.

The full petition can be read here, along with a list of how the FDA is taking responses from the public.