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When you buy a carton of milk, you probably don’t take time to read the ingredients list. (Milk is milk, right?)

Well, a new campaign by the U.S. dairy industry could have you pulling out your magnifying glass: Milk producers are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow aspartame in chocolate and other flavored milks without advertising it on the front label, keeping this synthetic additive hidden in the fine print.

The chemical aspartame is sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal, among others. It is found in diet sodas, cereals, yogurts, chewing gum, and more, where it’s used as a low-calorie food additive that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It’s also been a subject of controversy since it was approved for human consumption by the FDA in 1981. In the years since, various studies link long-term consumption of the substance to headaches, autoimmune diseases, depression, attention deficit disorder, tumors, and various types of cancer.

According to David Katz, MD, MPH, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and editor in chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, aspartame can also negatively shape our cravings, an especially dangerous phenomenon in children. “Sugar substitutes still propagate a sweet tooth, and by affecting taste preference and the palate, influence other food choices,” he says.

The dairy industry says it simply wants to avoid conspicuous labels like “low calorie” or “diet,” which don’t appeal to their key market for flavored milk: kids.

While aspartame would appear in the list of ingredients, Katz wonders whether it’s fair to expect consumers, especially young people, to know that something as innocuous as milk is being chemically altered. Concerned milk drinkers can register their worries through the consumer advocacy group SumOfUs, which launched a petition urging the FDA to not allow milk and dairy products to include aspartame or other artificial ingredients. (See the petition here:

The debate serves as a reminder that consumers should read labels carefully. “If milk has been modified, I think it should say so on the front, where no one can overlook it,” Katz says. “But if we have to read ingredient lists, we have to, and even kids can be taught to do that well.” To start the conversation with young milk-drinkers, check out Katz’s free food-label literacy program, “Nutrition Detectives.”

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