Why Your Kids May Soon Be Drinking 'Diet Milk'

The dairy industry tries a new tactic to boost flagging milk sales.

A student enjoys lunch in the cafeteria of Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., Jan. 25, 2012.
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Milk sales have been sliding for decades, but the industry may soon have a new weapon for countering the trend: a mix of school lunches, product labeling, and aspartame. The question is whether it will work.

The story has the blogosphere buzzing this week, but the idea has been almost four years in the making. In 2009, the National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association, two industry trade groups, filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration to allow the use of aspartame—the artificial sweetener used in products like Diet Coke and Equal packets—in milk, but refrain from changes in how the product is label. Now that the FDA has published the petition and opened it up for public comment, the topic has gained nationwide attention.

Some have joked that the plan will lead to "diet milk," but that's the last thing the dairy industry wants. The trade groups are petitioning for flavored milk containing aspartame to be labeled as "milk," as opposed to something more conscious, like "low-calorie milk."

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The groups say the goal is, in part, to counteract childhood obesity. But the petition is also candid about aiming to boost milk consumption. Children drink millions of gallons of milk in school every year, but that consumption is also declining, according to a spokeswoman for IDFA.

The trade associations are hoping that aspartame helps to reverse that decline. Many children prefer chocolate milk to regular milk, but that means added sugar and calories, not to mention hesitance from schools about serving higher-calorie drinks. Meanwhile, there has been a national full-court press to counteract childhood obesity. This solution, the dairy industry says, solves both problems.

"Studies have shown that school-age children are more likely to consume flavored milk over regular milk, so if the downward trend in milk consumption in schools is to be reversed, there need to be better options available for lower-calorie flavored milk," they wrote in their petition.

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The nation as a whole has been cutting back on milk. According to the IDFA, per capita milk consumption has declined from nearly 29 gallons per year in 1975 to less than 21 gallons per year in 2010—a drop of nearly 30 percent. Milk has been supplanted by other beverages over the last few decades—first by soda, then water, says Harry Balzer, vice president at market research firm NPD Group and an expert on food trends. Now, people increasingly tend to consume milk via cereal rather than drink it, he says.

The push for lower-calorie options is in part a lesson in knowing your audience. Lower-calorie beverages that are not explicitly labeled as such could please parents and school administrators while getting children—a captive audience in the school lunchroom—drinking more.

"Use of the phrase 'reduced calorie' is not attractive to children," says the petition.

But it is very attractive to people who check labels, especially given the attention being paid to childhood obesity, says Balzer.

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"The one thing that people check labels for in this country is the amount of calories in the product, not the amount of fat or the amount of sodium," he says. "I have no doubt that there will be a segment of the population that will be interested in this."

Even if the FDA does grant the trade groups their wish, plenty of people won't be on board. Calories aren't all that counts with parents; plenty more worry about giving their children extra food additives. In addition, the fact that the dairy industry wants to put the additives in without additional labeling has led to fears of less transparency in what schools and parents serve children.

The dairy industry, meanwhile, would argue that it's all about making sure children start drinking milk and never stop.

"Part of the petition's intent is really to encourage children and adolescents to drink milk," says Peggy Armstrong, vice president of communications at IDFA. "We want to create lifelong habits."