Foods featuring a “reduced calorie” or “low fat” label are an attractive draw for some consumers but can be a big turn-off for others. In an effort to match a target audience with appropriate marketing, the dairy industry needs help with a regulatory snag.
The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) want federal regulators to allow lower-calorie options without a “reduced calorie” label.
The industry has pushed for a regulation amendment since 2009, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally accepted a draft on Feb. 20. Following a public comment period, the new rule is expected to pass in May.
The industry’s request was inspired by changes in school lunch programs, where cafeterias nationwide have been clamping down on excess sugar—including chocolate and strawberry-flavored milks.
Amid an ever-growing obesity epidemic, flavored milks have been dubbed “soda in drag,” and some districts have banned the beverages entirely. Students are still encouraged to drink plain milk, but with kids seeking sweet alternatives, dairy consumption has dropped considerably.
School cafeterias contribute to as much as 7 percent of national milk sales, and new lunchroom rules have put a big dent in the dairy industry’s bottom line. According to the Milk Processor Education Program—an industry group affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture—milk consumption fell by an average of 35 percent in schools where flavored milks were removed or limited. Some schools saw consumption fall by more than 50 percent.
In one strategy to win back the flavored-milk market, the dairy industry is promoting chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid—accompanied by its own research study and celebrity endorsements. The pitch has attracted a few young athletes but has effected little change on school policy.
Now the dairy industry is appealing to low-calorie lunchroom rules by swapping out the sugar and high fructose corn syrup, replacing the sugars with no-calorie synthetics such as aspartame. However, current labeling requirements stand in the way of an effective marketing strategy.
Under existing FDA rules, synthetic sweeteners may be added to dairy products if the package bears a “reduced calorie” label. But according to market research, children find these labels repulsive. An IDFA and NMPF joint petition appeals to regulators with a win-win proposal: the sweet taste that kids want, while reducing “childhood obesity by providing for lower-calorie flavored milk products,” reads the petition.
The petition immediately created enemies. With talk of synthetic sweeteners being added to children’s milk without a label, the dairy industry’s request reignited a decades-long controversy over aspartame.
“It is estimated that 75 percent of the complaints the FDA receives are linked to aspartame,” states a citizens’ petition to the FDA against the measure. “Hidden ingredients put sensitive individuals at risk and violate all individual’s rights to make fundamental personal choices regarding their own food supply.”
While the supposed health benefits and safety of aspartame remain a matter of debate, the new label request is actually much less devious than its critics fear. Unlike genetically modified ingredients, nothing will really be hidden under the dairy industry’s labeling proposal, as manufacturers are still obligated to include any new additions to the ingredient list, including aspartame.
According to a Feb. 26 NMPF news release, the new rule “will allow those consumers who want a lower-calorie flavored milk to have that choice.” However, with no “reduced calorie” label to identify the product, determining this choice will soon require a closer inspection.
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