Thursday, February 28, 2013

Aspartame, the FDA, and the Milk Lobby

Yesterday I found a lot of things circulating on Facebook about the aspartame-in-milk controversy.  The problem is that a lot of what's being posted is totally backwards.  For example, this one:
The FDA wants to start adding aspartame to milk.

According to the FDA notice issued this week:

"IDFA and NMPF state that the proposed amendments would promote more healthful eating practices and reduce childhood obesity by providing for lower-calorie flavored milk products. They state that lower-calorie flavored milk would particularly benefit school children who, according to IDFA and NMPF, are more inclined to drink flavored milk than unflavored milk at school."

The FDA can't find enough ways to pump humans through Big Pharma.
First, the truth from which this post springs:  Milk lobby groups are trying to get the go-ahead to put aspartame in milk without having to label it in the way they are currently required to do so.  They're already able to put the sweetener in milk, but the milk has to be labeled artificially sweetened.  What the milk lobby would like is the right to use aspartame in flavored milk beverages (like chocolate and strawberry milk) without labeling it as artificially sweetened.

Here's what this (and many other posts) are getting wrong or not making public:
  1. The FDA is not the one pushing for this.
  2. Aspartame would still have to be listed as an ingredient.
  3. They aren't considering putting aspartame in just flat out plain  milk; just flavored milk.
  4. The real health problem here isn't the aspartame.
First, this is not the FDA's idea.  There are so many posts and articles out there that are making this an issue of "big government tampering with America's food supply."  The FDA actually has a huge hand in protecting our food supply... if it weren't for the FDA, food companies could (and definitely would) put whatever the hell fillers, chemicals, and sketchy ingredients in our food and they wouldn't even have to label it.

So when you read anything about the FDA and food labeling controversies, what's usually happening is that either the FDA wants something new to be put on a label and food lobby groups are pissed off about that, or food lobby groups are trying to get the FDA to change a labeling requirement so they can make more money.  The FDA, in theory, is basing their labeling requirements on consumer needs and consensus, and they generally don't do a terrible job.

For example, the corn industry petitioned the FDA to allow them to call high fructose corn syrup "corn sugar."  This was blatantly because people view high fructose corn syrup as unhealthy (which it is), so the industry was taking a hit and they wanted a friendlier name.  The FDA rejected this for two reasons:  "sugar" and "syrup" are defined differently, and "corn sugar" is already used to describe dextrose, which is eaten by people who are fructose intolerant.

To use another example, the FDA requiring the labeling of trans fats on food caused a huge decrease in blood trans fats because people could see just how much of this crap they were eating, and companies tweaked their recipes specifically to get that magical goose egg on their labels.  There are definitely still problems with this, because the labeling still allows people to say zero trans fats when there are still trans fats, but without it companies would have much less incentive to reduce it.

When shitty labeling practices are promoted, it's usually the businesses doing it.  Even the big-brand make-me-feel-ethical companies are known to petition the FDA, the USDA, and other regulatory agencies so that they can use deceptive labeling, such as Annie's Homegrown supporting the degradation of "organic" over a food coloring.

That's what's happening here.  Milk lobby groups, the International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation, are the ones who want labeling practices to change.  The reason is that milk products are declining in popularity, and they would like to decrease the sugar/calories of flavored milk products without the "artificially sweetened" label that they believe convinces kids not to drink it.

In conclusion of that point, I want people to recognize that anti-government-agency sentiment about this issue is terribly misplaced and incorrect.  The FDA is there specifically to prevent things like deceitful advertising, they aren't the ones petitioning for more of it.

However, it's important to recognize that this does not mean aspartame would be a "hidden" ingredient.  It would still appear in the list of ingredients, so it's not as big a deal for people with aspartame allergies as one might expect.  However, people such as these who are used to quickly looking at a label would likely still be affected negatively.  It's also important to recognize that they're only proposing changing their labels, not adding new aspartame to old products.  It's deceptive that the images circulating about this issue almost exclusively include pictures of plain white milk... they aren't planning on adding artificial sweeteners to it, so if you're drinking plain milk only you should be in the clear.

But I'm going to make a statement here that I hope at least one person will take to heart:  People are making a huge issue out of the aspartame itself without looking into the bigger issues at play here.

The first is that these sorts of petitions very squarely place profits over consumer health concerns.  Again, the reason this is happening is because an industry is losing profits because people are gravitating toward other products they feel are healthier for them and their kids.  This is not something that should be discouraged, but that's exactly what food lobbyists do by petitioning to have less information on their labels.  I simply do not believe that aspartame is the ridiculously deadly substance people would have you believe, but people still have the right to know it's there, and even a small gesture impeding that knowledge is a cut on consumer rights.

But my real issue from a health standpoint is this:  Sugar in general is not good for you, nor are artificial sweeteners.  We're as a culture becoming extremely sweet-insensitive... we need more and more sweet for things to taste "normal," and industry's go-to tactic for getting consumers to eat a product is to add more sweet.  Even savory foods often have added sugar just to feed our collective sugar addiction and keep people buying more.  And sugar wreaks havoc on our health.

Aspartame (or stevia, or Splenda) instead of corn syrup or cane sugar would be a big improvement for a lot of children's diets, but it does nothing to stave off the underlying problem that kids--and the rest of us--keep drinking a bunch of sweet shit.  Drinking sweet shit--whether that sweet shit is chocolate milk, orange juice, Coke, Diet Coke, or even smoothies--screw with peoples' perception of other sweet things and encourage us to overeat.  When people have a panic attack over aspartame, the usual alternatives are corn syrup and cane sugar because they're more "natural."  Maybe so, but they're still not better for you.

Basically, whether or not the dairy industry is allowed to change their labels doesn't change the fact that whether we drink sugary milk or artificially sweetened milk, we still lose.