BENTLEY: Demand mandatory labels

Walk into Durfee’s, and you will see containers of Diet Coke, Diet Snapple and VitaminWater Zero next to their sugary counterparts. Words like “diet” or “sugar-free” indicate the presence of artificial sweeteners — a catalog of unpronounceable chemicals such as aspartame, acesulfame potassium or neotame. These artificial sweeteners give foods a hyper-sweet taste with none of the calories. And these sweeteners are not just in sugary beverages, like sodas and juices, anymore; they are also in many dairy products, like chocolate milk and ice cream. Fewer calories might make Sundae-Sunday seem better for your waistline, but like they say: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Currently, mandatory labels provide crucial information, allowing shoppers to make educated purchases. However, this past February, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for permission to remove labels declaring the presence of artificial sweeteners from milk, yogurt, whipped cream and other dairy products. These products could end up in our dining halls and campus convenience stores, but one place they will definitely appear is in schools, where children often opt for chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milks. Without labels, consumers will be unable to make an informed choice to consume or abstain from these harmful sweeteners.

The milk industry counters that low-calorie sweeteners could help promote healthy eating practices and reduce childhood obesity. But the fact that these substances are calorie-free makes them dangerous and risky, not to mention entirely unnatural.

Here in New Haven, Dana Small, a researcher at John B. Pierce Laboratory, has spent time researching the neural mechanisms underlying taste, flavor and feeding in the human brain. According to Small, our body responds positively to the taste of sweet, because humans have evolved to recognize sweet as sugar, and sugar as calories. To prepare for these calories, the body produces insulin when we taste something sweet.

Artificial sweeteners give the illusion of this metabolic reward, duping the body out of expected calories. Small explains that, over time, the predictive utility of the stimulus becomes degraded. In other words, our bodies eventually stop producing insulin. When we consume artificial sweeteners, our homeostatic, physiological processes are disrupted and rearranged. The effects may be severe and long lasting.

A 2008 study by Terry Davidson and Susan Swithers also demonstrates the dangers of artificial sweeteners. The researchers observed the effects of calorie-free sweeteners on rats, introducing rats to two kinds of sweetener: glucose (caloric) and saccharin (non-caloric). Over time, the correlation between sweet taste and calories was eliminated. For the rats, this change meant an increase in caloric intake, an increase in body weight and even increased adiposity. That’s pretty much the opposite of what the dairy industry claims is true.

Whether or not these chemicals should be allowed at all is another discussion. But what should be clear by this point is that we have the right to choose whether or not to consume these substances. Labels are an easy way to make known the contents of a cup, carton or container. If the FDA accepts the milk industry’s plea, it will be a major infringement of consumers’ rights, not to mention a threat to health.

It would be challenging to regulate the sale of artificial sweeteners, but I don’t think that’s out of the question. As individuals, we are expected to take our weight-management and health into our own hands. Removing the labels on aspartame-containing milk products strips us of the ability to make decisions about what we consume, ironically, in the name of health.

The FDA will vote on this policy on May 21, but we need to speak up now. We should demand more labeling from the food industry, not less. Demand pure dairy products — or at the very least, labeled ones. Demand transparency from the industries that feed you.

Victoria Bentley is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at victoria.bentley@yale.edu .

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