You may have seen news stories recently about FDA changing the rules on aspartame in milk. The situation is more complicated than it may appear at first, and illustrates the problems involved in public health policy.
Snopes gives a good overview, as usual, and I have verified it by reading the official documents.
Basically, the dairy industry is asking for permission to remove the
'reduced calorie' labels that are currently required on the front of the
package of flavored milk with low-calorie sweeteners. The sweetener
would still be listed on the ingredients list like it is on all other
The requirement that the dairy industry industry is trying
to remove is specific to milk products, and it is several decades old.
Back in the early years of the FDA, there were no nutrition fact labels
so consumers did not know the nutritional content of foods. The FDA
tried to protect consumers from fraud by establishing a 'standard of
identity' for many foods. These standards specified exactly what
producers could and could not do to the food, preventing them from
making changes that would cause consumers to get less value than they
thought they were getting.
When these standards of identity were
written, obesity was not an issue and a major source of fraud was
producers using substitute ingredients that lacked the nutritional value
of the real food. Sugar and fat were considered important nutrients,
because many people did not get enough of them. If you bought food for
your child that you thought had sugar, but the producer had removed
sugar to save money, the child could be malnourished.
standard of identity for flavored milk was written under the assumption
that the milk should be sweetened with actual sugar. If the producer
used a 'non-nutritive' sweetener, then they had to show a prominent
warning label to inform the consumer that the food did not contain as
much nutritional value.
Obviously, things have changed. The FDA
no longer operates under the assumption that replacing sugar with a
low-calorie sweetener is cheating the consumer of an important source of
nutrition. Nutritionists now say that people, especially children,
should avoid added sugars, and
that sugars in liquid are especially likely to cause obesity because of
how the human appetite is regulated.
Children are currently
drinking milk flavored with lots of sugar. Often the milk comes from
school lunches, where children are making the choice about what to
drink. The fact that schools are offering milk loaded with added sugars
is a bad thing, but the issues of school lunches and children choosing
what to eat are beyond the scope of this post. They are also beyond the
power of the FDA to change; school lunch rules are handled by the USDA.
milk companies would like to sell lower-calorie flavored milk to
replace the sugared flavored milk. Aspartame is cheaper than sugar, and
less likely to cause obesity, and the companies are run by people who
are not monsters and would like children to be healthier. But the
problem is that the current standards of identity require a label on low-calorie milk.
may not seem important, but marketers and graphic designers hate
required front-of-package labels, and for good reason. They take up
space that could be used to make the product more attractive, and they
send the message that something is wrong with the product. If they
replaced their high-calorie flavored milk with reduced-calorie flavored
milk, their sales would probably suffer and they would lose money. So
they petition to change the rule.
It is true that milk flavored
with lots of chemicals is worse that ordinary milk, and most people
realize this. They want to see some kind of warning labels on these
chemical concoctions to encourage children to drink plain natural milk.
So they see the news about removing warning labels, without
understanding the context, and complain about how the government and big
business are trying to poison their children. They do not realize that
the children are already consuming the relatively unhealthy flavored
milk with loads of added sugars.
I have no idea what the FDA will
decide to do in this case, but this looks like a tough decision. The
dairy producers are perfectly justified in trying to change an outdated
regulation. Children probably would be healthier if they switched from
added sugar to aspartame, the same way that diet sodas are healthier
than sugar sodas.
Of course, the children would be even healthier
if they drank plain unflavored milk, but when making policy decisions
you cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This illustrates
one of the fundamental rules of economic analysis, thinking at the
margin. You cannot compare a proposal to an imaginary perfect world. You
have to compare it to the status quo, make a prediction on how things
would change, and find out of those changes would make the world better
But humans do not naturally think like this. The human
instinct is to turn everything into a simple narrative of good versus
evil, and then to use that narrative to score political points for or
against a certain political group. Narrative-based moralizing without
consideration of background or context makes it even more difficult for
regulatory agencies to design and implement good policy.