Defining Milk

June 03, 2013

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is trying to stop a petition to amend the standard of identity for milk and 17 other dairy products that was filed by the National Milk Producers Federation with the FDA on February 20, 2013.

This article was originally published in Food, Nutrition & Science

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is trying to stop a petition to amend the standard of identity for milk and 17 other dairy products that was filed by the National Milk Producers Federation with the FDA on February 20, 2013. The National Milk Producers Federation wants the FDA to allow manufacturers to label milk as “Milk” even if it contains sweeteners as an optional ingredient. If the petition is allowed, milk products containing artificial sweeteners would not have to clearly indicate on the front of the carton that artificial sweeteners have been added.

The National Milk Producers Federation’s petition is an effort to increase milk consumption in the schools, where consumption is declining. And while studies have shown that flavored milks (like chocolate or strawberry) increase consumption, critics have lamented the extra sugar in those drinks. A lot of administrations in school districts, in fact, are telling their schools not to sell flavored milk, even though the milk in most flavored milks is fat free and the product itself only has a small amount of sugar. The National Milk Producers Federations says that allowing sweeteners to be used in these products could help improve the diets of children and reduce obesity. Chocolate milk sold in schools currently does not contain artificial sweeteners. 

But the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that this is an unnecessary labeling change, and their argument has little to do with the questioned safety of artificial sweeteners. They say that flavored milk is not a major source of added sugar in children’s diets, and that studies show that children who drink chocolate milk have similar BMIs to nondrinkers. 

“The evidence the Academy reviewed does not demonstrate that the standard of identity of milk should be altered. The Academy believes that the current standard of flavored milk is effective in encouraging milk consumption by school-aged children to improve calcium intake and bone health. Further, the Academy is concerned that the proposed amendments to milk’s standard of identity will be confusing and lead consumers to begin questioning whether ‘milk’ is still the pure, wholesome, and nutritious staple we have come to expect,” says Deborah Beauvais, RDN SNS, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Meanwhile, there are actually benefits to school children drinking chocolate milk. Some of those benefits include higher intakes of vitamin A, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and potassium. Ultimately, one study found that the consumption of flavored milk was indeed associated with a positive influence on nutrient intakes.

Interestingly, there is a bit of a precedent for these types of labeling nuances. In 1994, the FDA amended the standard of identity for ice cream to allow for “any safe and suitable sweetener.” Sweetener or no sweetener, ice cream can still be called “ice cream.” To promote honesty, the FDA required that all sweeteners other than nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners used in ice cream be declared as part of the name of the food for the first three years after the ruling. After that period lapsed, ice cream makers were only required to list the use of sweeteners in the ingredient statement.

Here’s the thing, though. The FDA explained that consumers innately understand that ice cream is the common and usual name of the frozen product made from cream, or a mixture of milk and cream, and then sweetened with sugar or another suitable sweetening agent. Whether an assumption like this could apply to our consumer understanding of “milk” is another matter altogether, and probably, unlikely.

In regard to the claim that labels like “Reduced Calorie” or “Reduced Fat” are confusing to children, Beauvais explains that the evidence for this is questionable, and was one of the reasons the Academy recommended denying the petition.

“The benefits of consuming flavored milk far out way the nutritional short falls of no milk consumption at all; milk provides nine essential nutrients that all Americans need, including three of the four nutrients of concern identified by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Milk is an excellent source of calcium that helps build strong and healthy bones, but many don’t meet the recommended intake. Providing flavored milk encourages children who wouldn’t otherwise drink milk to do so and thus meet more of their nutrient needs,” adds Beauvais.