How Big Dairy's Looking out for My Kids

"What do they have to drink?" the little angels ask as our family sits down in the booth at the diner.

"Milk and water," I automatically respond before even opening a menu.  Thankfully my husband hasn't dragged us to a restaurant with a self-serve soda fountain this time, so I seize the moment to keep the kids on track with mom-approved drink choices.

When the little angels repeat their question for our server, she responds with a quick wit and a smile at me, "Milk and water," thankfully avoiding the chocolate milk question.

Most restaurant-ready chocolate milk I've encountered came with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavoring, a big turnoff to most parents reading ingredient labels these days.  Criticize me for overparenting if you want, but if anyone is going to lie and manipulate my kids into making certain drink choices, it's going to be me.

No wonder I'm shocked, like many other parents, to find out Big Dairy wants to trick my kids into picking their flavored milk laced with artificial sweeteners.  You've probably heard about this story gone viral now that the Food and Drug Administration is asking for public comments on the matter.  The FDA announced in February that the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation had petitioned the government in March of 2009 for a big change in labeling rules on dairy products.  

Apparently, the rule change would put artificial sweeteners like aspartame in our children's chocolate milk at school, without necessarily making them aware of it.  While such a sweetener has always been required to be listed with ingredients on the back, the food industry reps would like to remove the extra front label that says something like "reduced calorie" since they think that doesn't appeal to kids.  The FDA notice in the Federal Register states:  "However 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."

In a media release out a few days after the FDA announcement, the NMPF says, "This petition was initially filed with FDA several years ago to help address the growing issues surrounding both caloric limits and added sugars for flavored milk sold in schools.  Some schools have removed flavored milk altogether, resulting in less consumption of milk by children and less consumption of milk's important nutrients."

So, milk sales are down, maybe some other parents complained about HFCS or too much sugar; and adding artificial sweetener, which many parents would not knowingly feed their children because of health concerns, should become the norm for school lunch rooms?  

This is wrong on so many levels.  I didn't even realize my child's school was allowed to feed her artificial sweeteners for lunch.  Many of us prefer organic dairy products because they avoid all sorts of questionable inputs, from pesticides in grain fields to growth hormones to the artificial sweeteners at the center of this new labeling controversy.  Consumer advocate Robyn O'Brien put this topic smartly in context in her article for Prevention.

You can read the entire FDA announcement and add a public comment until May 21st at the Federal Register.

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