Thursday, March 14, 2013

Aspartame in Milk

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 foods.

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.

So the 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.

The 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.

This 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 or worse.

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.

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