Artificial sweeteners

Why I’m Worried About Chocolate Milk

by Sally on March 4, 2013

It’s not for the obvious reasons. Though I get passionate about junk at school parties and junk at school breakfasts (read: “I Have No Love for Candy Valentines” and “The Trouble with School Breakfast“), I haven’t gotten fired up about chocolate milk.

I know lots of people disagree–and I totally get why they do. I’d love to have water offered as a choice in cafeterias, and I’d like chocolate milk to be made without thickeners and added colors. (See Spoonfed‘s post “Orthorexia vs. chocolate milk: Will the real eating disorder please stand up?“)

But in my book, there are much bigger fish to fry when it comes to school food. I’d much rather see my child washing down a healthy real-food lunch with chocolate milk than eating a breaded chicken patty sandwich out of a plastic bag with a carton of white milk. Parents are outraged about chocolate milk. I’d like to see those emotions directed to the actual food that’s served every day.

The sugar in chocolate milk–about three teaspoons of added sugar (the rest is natural milk sugar)–is not coming from an empty-calorie source. If we’re going to get mad about the sugar in flavored milk, let’s stop sending gummy fruit snacks in kids’ lunchboxes.

I once heard a fellow dietitian refer to chocolate milk as “a glass of milk and a cookie”. When my son decided he wanted to start buying chocolate milk at lunchtime earlier this year, I stopped putting any sweet treats (like a Hershey’s Kiss or a homemade cookie) in his lunchbox. And we talked about the sugar in the flavored milk and how it was important to balance it out. (He actually got tired of chocolate milk after a week or two and stopped buying it.)

It was also heartening to me that in the last few years, manufacturers worked to lower the sugar content in the flavored milk they provide to schools.

But here’s why I’m worried: The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation have petitioned the FDA for permission to add aspartame to flavored milk without labeling the cartons with statements such as “artificially sweetened” or “reduced calorie”. (Read this thorough summary of the issue from The Lunch Tray and how it this ruling could have implications for many other dairy products.)

Now THIS is something I can get fired up about. Because I hate when manufacturers respond to consumer demand for less sugar by lowering the sugar content–and adding artificial sweeteners (read one my very first blog posts: “Total Bummer“). This happens with Quaker Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal. It even happens with Stonyfield yogurt. If consumers want products with less sugar, here’s a crazy idea: MAKE A PRODUCT WITH LESS SUGAR. Everything in our food supply does not have to be sticky sweet.

Frankly, aspartame in flavored milk–given to school children all over the country–scares me. I know some people find the added sugar and colors in chocolate milk just as harmful as artificial sweeteners. But we all have our lines in the sand. This is mine. I find it insulting that “diet milk” is being promoted as some kind of solution for childhood obesity. And I find it deceptive that the dairy industry wants to add aspartame without disclosing it on the front label.

If you have an opinion about the labeling of artificially-sweetened milk and other dairy products and want to have your voice heard, you can comment on the FDA petition here.

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Total Bummer

by Sally on May 12, 2009

As a surprise to my husband, I upgraded our cable TV last fall during football season. So along with ESPN and HGTV, we were suddenly getting Cartoon Network. And Henry discovered the world of commercials.

I tried to shield him, I really did. I only allowed him to watch a couple of select shows and attempted to block the ads by, well, standing in front of the set. But the boy saw some commercials. And he became totally fixated on Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal. He talked about how good it looked, he pointed it out to me in the grocery store. And I resisted.

Until one day on a trip to the store with baby Sam, when I spotted Total Cinnamon Crunch cereal. I took a quick glance at the Nutrition Facts Panel: four grams of fiber (not bad), nine grams of sugar (just slightly better than Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s 10), and four grams of protein (also not bad). I tossed it in the cart, figuring I could dole it out to Henry as a special snack (and figuring, of course, that I would be his hero).

Well, he was thrilled alright. In fact, he thought it was the real thing and happily ate it as a bedtime snack.

Then one night, I reached over and snagged a handful of dry cereal for myself. And I realized (in that slow-motion action movie “nnnnnnooooooooooo!” kind of way) that something was terribly wrong.

I grabbed the box, scanned down the ingredient list, and found it: Sucralose. Sucralose! I couldn’t believe it. Note to cereal manufacturers: You just don’t go putting artificial sweeteners in breakfast cereal without at least placing a huge red warning label on the front of the box.

Needless to say, I’m not a fan of artificial sweeteners. Not just because I think they taste bad, in a chemical kind of way. But also because I secretly worry those six-diet-pops-a-day drinkers may eventually grow an additional arm. And I don’t want my kids, with their tiny developing bodies, ingesting them. I’d rather have Henry eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal every morning with a side of ice cream than snacking on artificial sweeteners.

That’s not to say I caved. I never did buy the real deal. Football season ended, we downgraded our cable, and Henry forgot all about it. But I learned a lesson: Even if the baby is in the grocery cart screeching and shredding your coupon book to bits while horrified customers give you disapproving looks, read the ingredient list carefully. You never know what might be hiding in there.

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