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The U.S. is in the midst of a public health epidemic due to poor diet. While much of the focus has been on obvious culprits such as sugary soft drinks and fast food, dairy foods often get a pass. The dairy industry, propped up by government, has convinced us of the health benefits of milk and other dairy products. But the context of how people consume dairy matters.

My new report, Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods, shines a light on the shifting patterns of consumption away from plain milk toward dairy products laden with sugar, fat and salt. For example:

  • About half of all milk is consumed either as flavored milk, with cereal, or in a drink.
  • Nearly half of the milk supply goes to make about 9 billion pounds of cheese and 1.5 billion gallons of frozen desserts–two-thirds of which is ice cream.
  • 11 percent of all sugar goes into the production of dairy products.

It’s bad enough for the dairy industry to promote junk food in the name of health, but making matters worse, Uncle Sam is propping up the effort. The federal government mandates the collection of industry fees for “checkoff programs” to promote milk and dairy. Far from being just a privately-funded program, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech,” finding: “the message … is controlled by the Federal Government.”

Checkoff money is also only supposed to be used for “generic” marketing activities. However, the program gives a huge boost to leading fast food chains. For example:

  • McDonald’s has six dedicated dairy checkoff program employees at its corporate headquarters who work to ensure that dairy plays an important role in McDonald’s product development.
  • The dairy checkoff program helped Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds, which resulted in a four percent increase in the chain’s dairy sales.
  • The dairy checkoff program helped Pizza Hut develop a 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and the “Summer of Cheese” ad campaign.
  • Dominos benefitted from a $35 million partnership with the dairy checkoff program, resulting in the company adding more cheese, with other pizza makers following their lead.
  • Domino’s “Smart Slice” program brought the pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011, with help from the checkoff.

Speaking of schools, the dairy industry, with a government assist, is heavily promoting chocolate and other sugar milks to schoolchildren, desperate to maintain its presence in a lucrative market with a captive audience. For example:

  • USDA’s milk checkoff program promotes “Chocolate Milk Has Muscle” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk” campaigns to defend chocolate milk.
  • Dean Foods’ TruMoo is a popular brand sold in schools; one serving of TruMoo strawberry milk contains an incredible 23 grams of sugar.
  • Milk checkoff educational materials were even used to change the mind of one school official who was planning to remove flavored milk.

Finally, many federal checkoff-funded dairy organizations make dubious health claims to market their dressed up junk foods. Would you believe that:

  • “Cheese can fit into almost any eating plan.”
  • “Process cheese is made from natural cheese.”
  • “Cheese contributes essential nutrients for good health.”
  • “Chocolate milk is the perfect balance of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and protein—a combination that can’t be found in any other beverage.”

At a time when our nation is suffering from an epidemic of diet-related health problems, we cannot allow the decades of whitewashing by the dairy industry to continue. The assumption that eating dairy is essential to the diet has obstructed our ability to criticize federal government support for unhealthy forms of dairy.

It’s time to stop dancing around the federal checkoff programs by pretending they are privately-funded. As this report demonstrates, federal government administers, oversees and approves almost every aspect of the dairy checkoff program. These funds are directly used to promote junk foods, which are contributing to the diseases our federal government is allegedly trying to prevent.

Andy Bellatti is a registered dietitian who contributed to the report by calling out the many misleading health claims made by the dairy industry. He says:

In our cultural glorification of dairy, we often forget that many of these products are directly contributing to our current public health epidemic. Even more troubling, due to the dairy industry’s deep pockets and political connections, federal authorities are giving these foods a stamp of approval, rather than raising a nutritional red flag.

Food Politics

By Marion Nestle

The FDA is collecting opinions on a dairy industry petition to change the standard of identity for milk. The dairy industry wants to be able to add artificial sweeteners to chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk without saying so on the front panel of the package.

Why is the dairy industry doing this? Because it believes that:

Labels such as “reduced calorie” or “no added sugar” are a turn-off to kids who might otherwise reach for flavored milk with non-nutritive (artificial) sweeteners at the school cafeteria or from the grocery store cooler.

As if kids should be reaching for milk with artificial sweeteners.

The FDA wants to hear from you about this. It wants your comments on these questions (my translation):

  • If the label just says Chocolate Milk, will consumers understand that the milk is artificially sweetened?

  • Are descriptions like “reduced calorie” really unattractive to children?

  • Will it be hard for consumers to figure out whether a product contains sugar or an artificial sweetener?

How about a couple of other questions?

  • Why would anyone put artificial sweeteners into milk in the first place?

  • Is giving artificial sweeteners to children a good idea?

  • Why does milk for kids have to be sweetened? Can’t kids drink plain, unflavored milk?

Just asking. Do weigh in on this one. It’s not hard to do. Click here to comment.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

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Tell the FDA to Deny Approval of GE Salmon:

 

Food Consumer

By Marie Cendejas

Tomatoes

The most recent converts are hailing a new technique developed by researchers to extend the shelf life of tomatoes and other crops from the traditional 15 days or so to a full month. This is accomplished by suppressing two enzymes (A-Man, B-hex) which accumulate during the ripening process. Backers say this modification can decrease waste and increase efficiency, and it's a process that genetically alters the product. There have been reports that some animals have died shortly after consuming GMO tomatoes.

Cotton

Cotton is considered a food item because its oil can be consumed. According to recent Chinese research, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton is capable of killing bollworms without the use of insecticides. The production of Bt cotton has been linked to drastic depletion of soil nutrients and lower crop yields.

Canola

Canola oil must be chemically removed from the seeds, then deodorized and altered, in order to be utilized in foods. They are among the most chemically altered foods in our diets.

Aspartame

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in a number of products and accounts for as much as 75 percent of adverse reactions to food additives reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (This is not a GMO)

Dairy

One-fifth of dairy cows in the U.S. are given growth hormones to increase milk production. Scientists are concerned that the increased levels of IGF-1 (insulin growth factors-1) from hormone-treated cows may boost the risks of colon and breast cancer in humans. In 2008, Hiland Dairy stopped using milk from dairy farmers who injected their cows with growth hormone.

Corn

As many as half of U.S. farms growing corn for Monsanto are using genetically modified corn, with tons of it now being introduced for human consumption, according to the FDA. Doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec recently found Bt toxin from modified corn in the blood of pregnant women and their babies, as well as in non-pregnant women.

Papayas

Genetically modified papayas have been grown in Hawaii commercially since 1999, designed to combat the Papaya Ringspot Virus. Approved for sale and consumption in the U.S. and Canada, GM papayas cannot be imported or sold in the European Union.

Potatoes

Potatoes are sometimes genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis var. Kurstaki Cry 1. Mice fed GE potatoes have shown abnormal amounts of toxins in their systems. Also, according to Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff, Willaman Professor of Life Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University found that "rats fed the transgenic potatoes had significantly lower organ weights."

Soy

Soy includes soy flour, tofu, soy beverages, soybean oil and scores of other products, especially baked goods and pastries. According to one report, "After feeding hamsters for two years over three generations, those on the GM diet, and especially the group on the maximum GM soy diet, showed devastating results. By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies. They also suffered slower growth and a high mortality rate among the pups."

Rice

Rice has been modified to contain a high amount of vitamin A. (China suspended distribution of genetically modified rice within its commercial food suppliesover growing concern about its safety).

Visit EcoWatch's GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISM page for more related news on this topic.