To say the milk industry is in a bit of a bind is like saying the U.S. Postal Service is in a tiny amount of financial trouble: People are simply not drinking milk anymore.
This report from late last year shows that consumption of the once-ubiquitous dairy product is at the lowest levels in nearly 30 years. And the problem doesn't seem to be that people are drinking less beverages, simply choosing to walk around parched and dehydrated. Instead, it's a much more dangerous and seeming-to-not-end-anytime-soon problem for the dairy providers -- there's so many other options available that milk is getting squeezed out of the equation:
Shifting consumer habits and a flood of new beverages in the marketplace, including sports drinks and bottled teas, have taken a toll on beverage milk sales.
But, as you'd imagine is the case with any industry, the milk folks aren't simply going to sit back and watch their livelihood taken away from them. They're going to put on their thinking caps and try to come up with a way to sell their product, and this time simple milk mustaches on celebrities aren't going to do the trick. Back in 2009, they stumbled upon a predictable, yet impressive, solution to their problem: Throw a whole bunch of sweetener into the milk.
According to this piece by U.S. News, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association, two milk-related trade groups, petitioned to get the FDA to allow them to add the artificial sweetener aspartame -- the same thing in most "diet" or "zero calorie" sodas -- into milk. The reasons they presented are ingeniously two-folded: (1) Try to get people, specifically school kids, to start drinking milk again by tricking their taste buds; (2) Help curb the high incidence of childhood obesity in the country by having them drink this rather than normal sugar-infused soft drinks. The argument:
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.
The whole plan makes a reasonable amount of sense. The milk industry's a business, and if they think the addition of a "harmless" -- in quotes, seeing as use of the product in general in controversial to say the least -- additive is going to help that, so be it. And if the childhood obesity problem in our country gets partially-solved in the process, well, two birds have just been killed with one tasty artificial stone. However, the problem with the plan comes with how the milk industry will be announcing the addition:
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."
It's one thing for the milk industry to petition to allow aspartame. It's a completely different one to make that switch under the cover of darkness without alerting consumers. Their reasoning certainly makes sense from a business standpoint -- no doubt, people are less likely to buy a low-calorie offering of milk containing a controversial artificial sweetener -- but by trying to use subterfuge and insidious tactics to perform their own version of bait-and-switch, they risk the possibility of turning people off milk for good. After all, if people can't trust the labels on their cartons to provide the accurate information, why take a chance when there's so many other beverage options on the grocery store shelves?