Few Food and Drug Administration petitions have sparked as much controversy as the current consideration to change the standard identity for fluid milk to include approved zero-calorie sweeteners as an option in sweetened products. The current standard requires processors to use special labeling such as “reduced-calorie chocolate milk” for products made with non-nutritive sweeteners. If non-nutritive sweeteners are added to the list of standard ingredients for flavored milk, the products wouldn’t require the front-label description that dairy manufacturers have deemed unattractive to some consumers.

A citizen’s petition was filed nearly four years ago by the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation to change the standard. In February 2013, the F.D.A. published the petition in the Federal Register along with the agency’s request for public comment. The petition was and continues to be a direct attempt to keep flavored milks in school cafeterias, as federal agencies and consumer groups continue to push for lower-calorie milk and foods on school menus.

Allowing milk processors to use any approved sweetener in flavored milk and still label it as milk may help to stem the decline in consumption, while promoting healthy eating habits, according to the petition.

“Milk flavored with non-nutritive sweetener promotes public health by offering children and adolescents a beverage they are more likely to consume than plain milk and that has all of the nutritional benefits of milk and less sugar than milk flavored with nutritive sweeteners,” the petition states.

But confusion about the petition has generated a great deal of negative feedback from consumers and the media. This is likely due to the fact many consumers do not understand the concept of a food standard. The industry is not trying to sneak ingredients into flavored milk, in particular the artificial sweetener aspartame, as was alluded to by many of the comments made to the F.D.A. All ingredients would still be listed on the label.

Time to clarify

After receiving more than 34,000 comments about the petition during the first two months of the comment period, the F.D.A. decided it was time to publish a clarification, a highly unusual act by the agency. The on-line clarification was posted and the public was invited to comment on whether the proposed change would provide sufficient information for consumers to understand what is in the milk they buy, as well as whether the “reduced calorie” description affects their purchasing decisions. The item remained open for comment until May 21.

“Whether or not the proposed rule is accepted, consumers overwhelmingly associate this rule with aspartame, as judged by nearly 43% of the public comments posted on-line,” said Thom King, president, Steviva Brands Inc., Portland, Ore. “Consumers who dislike artificial ingredients are passionate and vocal about their beliefs. Many consumers do not understand the petition is focused on a nutrient content claim and not ingredient labeling.

“In the flurry of comments and controversy, one question is being cast aside, and that is how to get kids to drink their milk. Data show that few kids prefer plain milk and flavored milk requires sweetening, but that adds calories or in many cases, artificial ingredients.”

Using a natural, no-calorie sweetener, such as one extracted from the stevia plant leaf, should appeal to both label-reading parents and the picky child. But again, the current regulations do not allow for this to be easily done.

“With growing concerns around artificial, high-potency sweeteners, stevia-derived sweeteners can provide the naturally based sweetness that people can feel good about,” said Adams Berzins, principal technologist for Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “It is now important for companies to respond with healthy solutions that do not sacrifice the taste and eating experience that consumers have come to expect, and help keep flavored milk as a part of a healthy diet, as recommended by a host of medical organizations.”

In response to the growing discussions surrounding flavored milk and childhood nutrition, numerous ingredient suppliers have proactively developed ingredient combinations that enable processors to produce lower-calorie flavored milks.

“While looking to meet the sugar and calorie targets of the evolving flavored milk category, it is important to understand the sweetness characteristics and sweeteners that are being replaced,” Mr. Berzins said. “There is no sweetener quite like the combination of glucose and fructose present in traditional nutritive sweeteners such as sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. The upfront sweetness and clean release of these sweeteners are the benchmark for sweetness in many products, including flavored milks. The sweetness of stevia can work together with other sweeteners to present a complete sweetness profile.

“With optimal sucrose equivalence between 6% and 8%, our 95% or greater purity rebaudioside-A stevia sweetener is ideal for reduced-sugar flavored milks. With small amounts of added sugar and the naturally occurring lactose, formulators can provide a desirable sweetness profile while also achieving significant calorie reductions.”

Mr. King added, “Because stevia is 200 to 300 times as sweet as sugar, minute quantities provide a powerful sweetening impact economically, also making it an ideal choice to sweeten milks intended for the budgetary and nutritional requirements of school lunch programs.

“We have engineered several flavored milk recipes sweetened with our proprietary all-natural blend of fructose, inulin, stevia and magnesium carbonate as a direct replacement for sugar and artificial sweeteners and the results are very promising. There is absolutely no aftertaste and the final product has a mouthfeel and flavor profile identical to milk sweetened with sugar.

“This low-calorie, low-glycemic sweetening system contributes just 1.2 calories per gram. The inulin provides an additional benefit of functioning as a prebiotic fiber.”

Food scientists for Cargill also have designed a prototype fat-free chocolate milk using its stevia leaf extract sweetener.

“Our stevia works in conjunction with sugar to reduce total sugar by 25%,” said Breah Ostendorf, global commercial manager for Cargill’s stevia leaf extract business. “The product still retains all the great taste of a typical fat-free, full-sugar product. This formulation allows processors to stay within their existing manufacturing process, cost structure and requires no extra steps during manufacturing.”

It addition to maintaining sweetness, it is also important to consider the physical contributions of sweeteners.

“The bulk of the nutritive sweetener provides mouthfeel, which can contribute to the perception of sweetness,” Mr. Berzins said. “This is a contributing factor to the formulation of reduced versus no-sugar-added chocolate milk. The solids contributed by the nutritive sweeteners can allow for more acceptable overall sweetness profile, even when the nutritive sweetener is drastically reduced.

“These formulations often require adjustment of the existing stabilizer system or the addition of hydrocolloids. Certain ingredients can be more successful than others, but it’s important to recognize the options and what they can provide when targeting a naturally sweetened or all-natural product.”

Fluid innovations at retail

Most fluid milk processors have alternatively sweetened flavored milk prototypes ready to commercialize. Or if they don’t, they are in development. But in the meantime, a number of marketers recently have introduced value-added fluid milk products, including products designed for specific demographics as well as convenience items.

Addressing both, The WhiteWave Foods Co., Broomfield, Colo., introduced Horizon Organic Milk with 32 mg DHA Omega-3 Single Serve Milk Boxes. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid recognized in having a role in healthy brain development in children. Because most American children do not consume enough foods that are inherent sources of DHA, supplementation is important. Horizon Organic uses a plant-based source of DHA. The product comes in chocolate 1% and vanilla 1%, in three different multi-pack sizes: 6-,12- and 18-count packages. The suggested retail prices are $7.99, $14.99 and $15.99, respectively.

Prairie Farms Dairy, Carlinville, Ill., recently added a line of lactose-free milks. Formulated with the addition of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose into easily digestible sugars, the new product is described as having the same nutritional value of regular milk. It is packaged in half-gallon, re-closeable, gable-top cartons, and comes in five varieties: fat-free, fat-free with calcium, 2%, vitamin D (full fat) and vanilla almond-flavored fat-free. The latter likely is designed to appeal to former milk drinkers who may have been consuming nut milks to manage their lactose intolerance, as vanilla is a common flavor in the non-dairy category.

Earlier this year, Dean Foods Co., Dallas, introduced reformulated TruMoo chocolate milk, which now contains 40% less sugar than its previous formula. The product uses cocoa and natural flavors along with just enough natural sugar to improve the taste, according to the company.

“When we launched TruMoo back in 2011, our chocolate milk contained 15% to 20% less sugar than other brands of chocolate milk on the market,” said Greg Schwarz, senior director of marketing. “But we are constantly focusing on how we can make our products even better. The new TruMoo reformulation is another step in that direction.”

TruMoo is also now available in single-serve, shelf-stable milk boxes. Varieties are plain, vanilla and chocolate 1% low-fat varieties. They are sold individually and in 6- and 12-count packages.

The brand is going beyond the lower-sugar segment with new TruMoo Protein Milk. The ultra-pasteurized product has an extended shelf life of about 100 days under refrigeration. It comes in a 14-oz single-serve plastic bottle and delivers 25 grams of protein. Calorie content ranges from 390 to 410 calories and carbohydrates from 64 grams to 68 grams, depending on flavor, of which there are chocolate, cookies and cream, strawberry and vanilla.

The Smart Balance brand from Boulder Brands, Boulder, Colo., markets a line of milks specially formulated to support the growth and development of toddlers and children. Smart Balance Kids Milks are available in three varieties to grow with the child. All three varieties offer calcium and extra vitamin D, as well as DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) omega-3 fatty acids.

The Transitions Whole Milk & Nutrient Blend is the first U.S. milk with a nutrient blend containing iron for healthy growth and development, and prebiotics, which support digestion. The milk is formulated for children ages 12 months to 24 months, for whom many pediatricians recommend whole milk as they transition from breast milk or formula.

The Cow Wow Cereal Milk is a line of single-serve, ready-to-drink, flavored milks that capture the taste of the bottom-of-the-cereal bowl. Developed and marketed by its Los Angeles-based namesake company, the milks are making their national debut in Chocolate Chip Cathy and Fruity Trudy varieties, with Cinny Minny and Marsha Mallow rolling out later this year.

At the end of the day, sometimes consumers need to put calories, fat and sugar aside, and enjoy an indulgent flavored milk. This is exactly what Shatto Milk Co., Kansas City, is doing to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The company has plans to offer five limited-edition flavors in 2013. The first is a chocolate cherry milk called Smooch that debuted in time for Valentine’s Day. For St. Paddy’s Day, Lucky Mint Chocolate Milk hit store shelves.

The remaining three flavors will debut later this year. Each flavor is presented in a unique half-liter bottle featuring a fun word or story associated with the flavor. Only 2,000 bottles of each flavor are produced.

Maybe that’s the secret to get children to drink their milk in school. Offer limited quantities, in a raffle style process.