The Politics of Sweetness: Aspartame in Milk

» February 25th, 2013

As a general rule, foods that come from plants have fewer points of exploitation than foods that come from animals. This is not to suggest that growing fruits and vegetables, or processing them into a corn chip, doesn’t demand systematic exploitation, especially of those who pick our crops or sell them at a Super Wal-Mart.  It’s simply to acknowledge that such exploitation, when limited to plants, is more localized, less dispersed across the supply chain between producer and consumer, and, corn chips notwithstanding, possibly countermanded by the health benefits that come from eating plants.

Another way to put this is to note that when we eat animal products, everyone from the animals to the people who consume them experience some level of exploitation. I say that human consumers are exploited because (again in general) animal products are less healthy than unprocessed plant-based food and, I think it’s safe to say, unhealthy food promoted as healthy is a certain form of exploitation. Moreover, there’s more room in animal products for the kind of sinister manipulation for which industrial producers are becoming infamous (pink slime, horse meat, growth hormones, etc etc).

The shameless extent of that manipulation was confirmed last week by a petition filed to the FDA by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). These rapacious organizations are seeking to “amend the standard of identity for milk and 17 additional dairy products.” This language is legalese for wanting to change the basic meaning of milk. Worse, these parties wish to do so in order to add “any safe and suitable sweetener as an optional ingredient.”  The dairy industry, in other words, wants to seduce us into drinking more “milk” by making that “milk” taste more like Coke. Genius!

Let me be clear about something. I don’t readily subscribe to the commonly promoted idea that human consumers are passive pawns being controlled like marionettes by Big Bad Industrial Food wizards. We have agency. We have information. We have free will. We can and should use these powers to think critically, make smart choices about the food we eat, and throw rotten tomatoes at the cretins who tell us Twinkies are just fine in moderation.  There’s no reason we couldn’t all start eating plants and drive the industry as we know it into the landfill of history.

That said, too many consumers are either misinformed, willfully ignorant, or could care less. Or, worse, they’re kids. In any case, they need a benevolent nanny to protect them because they are most vulnerable to corporate malfeasance. They need to be guarded from feckless monsters capable of dumping aspartame (mentioned by name in the petition) into their milk (and sour cream!) and waking up in the morning with a clear conscience about their adulterating ways.

Part of that clear conscience comes from the rationalization that the milk industry is using to push their petition past a public whose collective head is evidently buried in an i-phone: health! In a distortion of logic that blackens even the most optimistic heart, the IDFA and NMPF write, “the proposed amendments would promote more healthful eating practices and reduce childhood obesity by providing for lower-calorie flavored milk products.” I’m not making this stuff up.

Sweetness means more kids will drink more low fat milk.  This is the reasoning behind the industry’s galling promotion of itself as a potential leader in battling childhood obesity. Note that the petition, although clearly stating this rationale, does not want it revealed to the consumer. It wants to do something ostensibly good but insists on lying about it.  And that, if nothing else, is suspicious.

Under existing law, the addition of a sweetener would require the label to bear the term “reduced calorie” milk. I don’t get this and don’t really want to. But IDFA and NMPF don’t like that designation one bit, arguing, “nutrient content claims such as ‘reduced calorie’ are not attractive to children.” Instead, they simply want milk “labeled as milk without further claims so that consumers can ‘more easily identify its overall nutritional value.’” Forget aspartame. Got Orwell?

How does the milk industry get away with such prevarication? The strategy here is two-fold and requires a brief elaboration. The first step is to set a historic standard of quality so abysmal that adding aspartame to milk can be justified on pubic health grounds without an FDA official breaking a rib in laughter. The dairy industry has been churning out so much unfathomable crap for so many decades that we’ve become anesthetized to poor quality, so much so that, in the carnival that we call the grocery store, we’ve come to think of artificially sweetened milk a mild improvement on the average.

Second, there’s the willful elision of short-term and long-term health effects. Right now the FDA deems artificial sweeteners effectively harmless. They make this case on the failure of these “non-nutritional” sweeteners to cause acute disorders (which probably required millions of rats to eat their body weight in saccharine—hence my opening argument about points of exploitation). To my knowledge, there have been no long-term studies of the chronic impact of digesting non-nutritive sweeteners in milk, but it seems perfectly reasonable to assume those effects could prove to be bad for human health. In allowing the former standard to replace the latter, the dairy industry is taking the most important page from the insecticide industry’s playbook. And we know how that turned out for consumers.

If there is a vegan-inspired takeaway point from this mess it comes from my opening observation (perhaps not totally accurate) that this form of deception is especially endemic to an industry whose profit lifeline ultimately comes from the exploitation of animals.  I suppose what’s happening to cow’s milk could just as easily happen to almond milk (which is, of course, often sweetened), but with the end result being growing more almonds rather than stealing calves from their mothers, I’m not buying the comparison. If you agree, let the FDA know:


You may submit comments, identified by Docket No. FDA-2009-

P-0147 by any of the following methods:

Electronic Submissions

Submit electronic comments in the following way:

Federal eRulemaking Portal: Follow the

instructions for submitting comments.


Thanks to John Maher for the tip. 

Tomorrow: Evolution, Genetics, and the Paleo Mentality







2 Responses to The Politics of Sweetness: Aspartame in Milk

  1. Rebecca Stucki says:

    James, I don’t know if you saw this very long and very sinister article from the NY Times yesterday but, as you know, it’s not only animal-derived products that are being heartlessly foisted on the naive public by what I can only describe as pure evil people out to make a buck. (And more and more of those traditionally plant-based snacks are getting animal-derived ingredients added to them as well!) Absolutely appalling.

  2. km says:

    I recommend the 2004 documentary “Sweet Misery” available on youtube & Netflix. Not the best produced film, but a lot of important information explaining the historical corruption between the FDA & Monsanto. Aspartame never should have made it to consumers mouths but Monsanto paid everyone off that tried to block them.

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