Watchdog fights to keep labels on ‘diet milk’

For more than three years, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation have sought permission to peel back labels on flavored milk containing low-calorie aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

The groups are trying to get around mandatory labels such as “low-calorie chocolate milk,” which they say doesn’t exactly appeal to kids. The labels, they contend, are contributing to a decline in consumption of healthy products.

"Milk flavored with non-nutritive sweetener promotes public health by offering children and adolescents a beverage they are more likely to consume than plain milk and that has all of the nutritional benefits of milk and less sugar than milk flavored with nutritive sweeteners," the industry argued in a 2009 petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration.

Last month, the agency announced it would take up consideration of the petition and put out a call for public comments.

The action sparked renewed opposition to the plan from SumOfUs.org, a nonprofit consumer group. The organization disputes the industry’s claim that aspartame is healthy and points to research suggesting artificial sweeteners alter brain chemistry, making people crave higher-calorie foods.

“Hyper-sweet additives like aspartame rewire children’s brains so that they always want sugary foods, turning the kids into tiny consumption machines,” said Kaytee Riek, campaign manager for SumOfUs.org. “This constant craving fattens up the food companies’ bottom lines as it fattens up their customers, leading to our current obesity epidemic."

In response to FDA’s request for comments, the group has launched an online petition. Thus far, more than 93,000 people have signed on, the group said.