I enjoyed Michael Sandel’s latest book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, in which the popular Harvard philosopher argues that market values often crowd out other values. It was a smart and smartly organized read: Sandel’s ideas are intriguingly developed, his critiques are strategically patient, and his chapters flow like neatly arranged lectures.
Then I read that the dairy industry hopes the FDA will let them sweeten milk and other dairy products with aspartame without admitting as much on labels.
It turns out that reading Sandel’s book wasn’t the academic exercise it felt like. Instead, it was a practical one. Because Sandel’s eye on values helps me see why I’m so eager to defend milk. It’s not just the potentially carcinogenic and certainly artificial aspartame that bothers me. In its recent lobbying, the dairy industry is pursuing economic value at the expense of other, more important values. They want to sell us more milk. And ignorance and apathy and greed and deceit and gluttony. Or, like the witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” they want to fatten us up.
Until a few weeks ago, GotMilk.com’s website opened with an ad campaign that, rather than praising cow’s milk, attacked soy and almond milk as comically unnatural scientific creations. Like the science lab project aspartame? Economic value prefers mudslinging to logic.
The dairy industry doesn’t need sweeter milk. They’re already successful. They’ve convinced generations that “it does a body good.” We’ve “got milk.” We like milk. Why sweeten milk to make it more likable? And they want to really sweeten the product. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. In a free market, profits matter more than moderation.
Of course the dairy industry isn’t really out to sweeten their products. They’re out to sweeten profits. For themselves and for the food industry at large. Because a sweetener like aspartame makes people want more. It’s like the coke originally in CocaCola. But at least the soda maker was candid with the coke. The dairy industry wants to secretly sweeten product and profit. Here, economic value displaces honesty.
They’re not trying to hook us on milk. They’re trying to (further) addict us to (more) processed foodstuffs swollen with fat and sugar and salt that are inexpensive to produce and exponentially profitable in that consumers will buy more and more. Profit margin prevails over good intention and good conscious.
The New York Times‘s Michael Moss notes that Yoplait yogurt has twice as much sugar as Lucky Charms. Moss attributes Yoplait’s profitability to “yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack.” And the sugar. Yoplait boasts an annual revenue of more than $1 billion. That’s a lot of profit made by sweetening a would-be healthy food.
Of course all that sugar isn’t good for us or for our children, a third of whom are overweight or obese. The dairy industry argues that aspartame will help curb epidemic obesity because the chemical will make their products taste sweeter without adding calories. But the first one is always free. Regardless of caloric content, a sweet drink distributed in schools will train young tastebuds. And then the food industry will offer another sweet. Maybe yogurt? It won’t be free. Economics teems with ulterior motives. And because we’re talking about the milk in school lunchrooms and home kitchens, economic value is encroaching on family values, too.
In “Hansel and Gretel,” the witch lures children who can’t find their way home into her “house made of sugar.” According to the brothers Grimm, she builds the sweet house “just to get them inside.” So does the dairy industry. Both are stories of a rampant consumption that threatens to consume us.
It’s not just milk we’re buying and buying into here. Moves like the one proposed by the dairy industry threaten our bodies and our ideals, too. The values disregarded here – good sense, honesty, moderation, altruism, integrity, health, morality, family – are qualities we like in ourselves and look for in others. They are the stuff of admirable people and engaging communities. But if we allow an often bewitching economic value to dictate our food and other aspects of culture, we disregard and even diminish these other, more important values.
Like Michael Sandel, I’d like to think about the ways we value items and ideas. But for now, how about this: decide for yourselves what you’re drinking. The FDA’s accepting your thoughts on the dairy industry’s proposal through May 21st: