April 3 2013 06:00 AM

When is chocolate milk not "milk"?

drinking chocolate milk I must admit when I first read blog posts that indicated aspartame could be added to milk and hidden from consumers, it both irritated and confused me at the same time. After seeing charged comments on websites, I chose to dig deeper into the topic. That resulted in hours of research to better understand the issue and sort through all the propaganda. After being initially against the concept, further research has given me an understanding of the labeling issue and I can now support the idea.

Flavored milks include chocolate, strawberry, banana and others which are especially popular among the younger generations. However, as concerns have grown about childhood obesity, the federal government issued new standards to reduce calorie levels and sugar content in school milk. As a result, processors stepped up to the plate to reformulate flavored milk to meet the new government mandated goal for school milk. That is only part of the story.

To reformulate, the sugar in flavored milk (currently added to milk in the form of high fructose corn syrup, sucrose and so forth) and its calories would need to be swapped for reduced sugar levels or lower calorie alternatives. However, a non-nutritive sweetener, such as aspatame, sucralose or stevia could also be an alternative. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared them as "safe and suitable." These sweeteners have no calories and therefore satisfy the more stringent calorie limits further imposed on top of FDA revisions by some schools.

That is only one portion of the story. When non-nutritive sweeteners are added to milk, the technical definition of the product is no longer "milk." Fluid dairy products sweetened with low-cal options must be labeled with a nutrient content claim such as "no sugar added chocolate milk" or with a nonstandard term such as "dairy drink," according to current FDA regulations. This is the basis of National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association's petition that was filed over four years ago (March 16, 2009). They want milk with an ingredient change to still be considered "milk."

Under current regulations, if a non-nutritive sweetener is added, the front of the carton must state as such on the label in addition to the back ingredient label required on all products as well. The supporters of this petition claim that printing "diet" or "non-nutritive sweetener added" and so forth on the front of the package will make it less attractive to consumers. So, for the sugar switch to be allowed, FDA must approve this change; it is the gatekeeper of products standards of identity. If not, the lower calorie drink, by legal terms, cannot be called "milk."

In the case of this proposed change, rules would be updated for flavored milk and 17 other dairy products on the list so that they can add non-nutritive sweeteners and lower the calories without the front panel labels and name changes. Some of the other dairy products under consideration include nonfat dry milk, sour cream, nonfat yogurt and evaporated milk.

So, if you are concerned about "things being added to milk," and it secretly being hidden from you, rest assured that any sweetener, non-nutritive or otherwise that has been added to milk will still be listed . . . on the product's ingredient label. This is especially important to individuals with food allergies to some additives. Unfortunately, the recently voiced public sentiments believe that ingredients are being added without consumer knowledge is incorrect.

Throughout my investigation, I realized that the dairy industry has not been proactive enough in sharing the reasons for the petition. This made it difficult to understand the producer side. There was a multitude of consumer-based anti-additives articles and blogs, which was frustrating because their "facts" were more "opinion" and the dairy industry had few articles or broadcasts to counterbalance in a consumer-friendly and understandable format.

Here is a well-presented article on the topic: http://on.hoards.com/flavor-milk and a television report: http://on.hoards.com/FM-vid

Hopefully this blog has helped convey the premises of the petition so as a producer you are aware of the real issue being debated. It is not about adding zero calorie sweeteners to flavored milk, it is about labeling milk when those sweeteners are added.

Read our Hoard's Dairyman Editorial on this topic in the April 10 issue and check our blog archives on Current Events.