SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) - Good old-fashioned milk - packed with protein, calcium and micronutrients - has landed in the middle of a food fight with sugary sodas, sports drinks, even bottled water.
Overall, sales of milk are down a whopping 25 percent since 1975. The dairy industry is now trying to rise to the top with a new plan that focuses on flavored milk like chocolate, strawberry or vanilla.
The plan leaves some with a sour taste in their mouth. The desired target is kids, and while children can greatly benefit from the nutrients in milk, nutritionists are not in support of the plan.
According to a petition filed with the FDA, this plan would change the very definition of what milk is. It would change what's called the "standard of identify" for milk and for 17 other dairy products.
"The dairy industry is simply interested in selling more products - that's all they're interested in. They want to sell more milk," said Professor Marion Nestle, Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and author of many books on food, politics and public health.
The change would allow dairy producers to add artificial sweeteners to flavored milk without having to clearly say so on the front. Flavored Milk that is currently sweetened with artificial sweeteners would no longer be called a dairy drink, but milk.
Imagine if you're shopping: under the proposal, a bottle of low-calorie chocolate milk would look just like a bottle of regular chocolate milk from the front. The only difference would be noticeable on the back of the product, under the ingredient list. And the artificial sweetener would not be listed as the well-known brand names but as their scientific names. According to some nutritionists, that will make it very difficult for consumers, parents and kids to know what they are buying.
"The front of the label is really what helps consumers make decisions quickly," said Registered Dietician Sonya Angelone, who spoke on behalf of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "People don't want to go to the grocery store and spend a lot of time trying to decipher the labels and figure out what's in there or what might not be in there."
Angelone said that her organization - the world's largest group of nutrition experts - is urging the FDA to deny the petition.
"There isn't substantial evidence that the rationale for hiding it in the back is actually a good one." said Angelone.
Dairy industry representatives have said they are not hiding anything. They said kids won't buy products that are labeled "low calorie" and that this proposed change will help kids cut down on unwanted calories and fight the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity
Angelone is skeptical. She said sweetened milk is not the driving factor behind the obesity problem in kids.
"There really isn't any evidence for this because, right now, sweetened milk is not a real big source of sugar anyway," said Angelone.
Professor Nestle said he believes kids should not grow to expect that everything they eat or drink has to be sweet, that they need to develop and explore all tastes in food.
"I just object to the idea that everything for kids has to be sweet," said Professor Nestle. "Milk doesn't have to be sweet."
And while the FDA has stated that artificial sweeteners are safe, the prestigious Institute of Medicine issued a report detailing how there is still uncertainty about its long-term use on the health and development of children.
"There really is a lack of data or evidence," concluded Angelone.
KPIX 5 dropped by one family's home and found kids eating cookies and drinking milk after school. We asked their moms what they thought about the petition, and the moms were clear: go ahead and put artificial sweeteners in flavored milks but don't murk up the labels.
"I think that anything that has an artificial element should be labeled clearly on the front," said Lori Beth Eisenstadt.
Fellow mom and friend Erika Vooelker agreed.
"I think it needs to be clearly labeled so parents know what they're feeding their children," said Vooelker.
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