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Does Chocolate Milk Belong in Our Schools?

A long time ago, I had a friend who seriously thought carrot cake was good for you because it had, as one of its ingredients, carrots.

 

And by “a long time ago,” I mean 2002. And by “a friend,” I mean myself.

 

This is true. When faced with a choice of desert -- for instance, a chocolate torte or a carrot cake -- I would choose the carrot cake because I thought it was more healthful.

 

Never mind that one slice contains the equivalent of about eight teaspoons of sugar. It has carrots. Vitamin A. Fiber. 

 

Man, it hurts to be reminded just how uninformed I was.

 

And by “uninformed,” I mean stupid.

 

Which reminds me of the rationale in favor of serving chocolate milk to America’s school children. 

 

Nationwide, more than 70 percent of the milk served in school lunch rooms is flavored. And by “flavored,” I mean sweetened with added sugar, often high fructose corn syrup; thickened with powdered milk, guar gum or carrageenan; and buttressed by colors and flavors that don’t exist in nature. I found one chocolate milk brand on the web that listed 13 items on its ingredient list.

 

I have to ask: Is this what it takes to ensure that kids get enough calcium and vitamin D in their diets?

 

Yes, say a number of people who work for, not surprisingly, the dairy industry -- like Greg Miller, an executive vice president at the National Dairy Council. Miller, according to an article published last month on SlowCook.com, supports flavored milk in schools, because “he routinely feeds his children chocolate milk because of the many nutrients it contains -- calcium, vitamin D, potassium, phosphorous, riboflavin, to name a few -- and because his children won’t drink plain milk.”

 

The assertion that children won’t drink milk unless it is flavored is the crux of the argument for including it on school-lunch menus. Last summer, The New York TImes reported that the School Nutrition Association (SNA) had released a study claiming that milk consumption dropped 35 percent when flavored milk was removed from elementary schools in seven districts.

 

“It’s better for them to have some milk with some flavoring and a little added sugar than to go without milk,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the SNA. This point is echoed by school lunch administrators on the local level, as well, including Minnetonka school district's Jane Bender, whom I talked to a couple of weeks ago about "school lunch coaching." Bender, by phone, expressed to me her concern about what would happen if kids had only white milk to choose from:

 

"A lot of them would just take water," she said.

 

The New York Times also revealed that the SNA study was paid for by the Milk Processor Education Program, which sponsors all those “Got Milk?” ads, as well as the more recently launched pro-chocolate-milk campaign, “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk.”

 

And by “Raise Your Hand” I think they mean raise your insulin level, because, on average, each eight-ounce serving of chocolate milk contains about five teaspoons of added sugar. Compare that to an eight-ounce swig of Mountain Dew, which contains about seven. So why is sugar such a big deal? Because a mounting collection of research blames a diet high in sugar, as a component of processed carbohydrates, for being the real culprit behind America’s twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity. Not fat. Saturated or otherwise.

 

“These highly sugared milks make absolutely no sense whatsoever,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who has recently spoken out against too much sugar in the typical American diet.

 

Then, there’s the added empty calories to consider. Each half-pint of chocolate milk contains 60 calories more than its white counterpart. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much to you, but when you do the math, 60 calories a day for a whole year adds up to six and a half pounds. Multiply this by six years -- the time a typical child spends in elementary school -- and that equals a 12-year old carrying almost 40 extra pounds into his or her middle school years.

 

Is the risk of weight gain and diabetes worth the calcium and vitamin D? Kim Plessel, MA and registered dietician at The Marsh, says no.

 

“I recognize the concern that children are under-consuming calcium and vitamin D. However, chocolate milk may be mistakenly construed as a ‘healthy’ alternative to its unsweetened counterpart,” Plessel wrote in an e-mail to me.

 

She added: “Our responsibility as adults is to provide healthy, wholesome foods. Children learn to like new foods by having them served repeatedly, seeing their family and friends eating them, and tasting them many times.”

 

Plessel is not at all surprised that the vast majority of school kids, when given a choice, will choose chocolate over plain, white milk.

 

“But if they’re not given a choice, they’ll eventually drink what’s available,” she said.

 

That seems to be what’s happening in school districts around the country, where flavored milks have been removed from school menus -- districts that include Fairfax County, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Berkeley, California; and Boulder, Colorado.

 

Boulder’s Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper, a celebrity chef and advocate for better school lunches, took flavored milk out of her schools two years ago. To boost the sale of white milk, she installed milk dispensers, which keep the milk colder and entice the kids to help themselves. (Oh, and by the way, the milk inside those dispensers is Organic Valley.)

 

“Saying we need to add sugar and flavoring to milk to get kids to drink it is like saying we need to feed kids apple pie if they don’t like apples,” wrote Cooper on her blog, ChefAnn.com.

 

And, if I may add: carrot cake if they don’t like carrots. You get my gist?

 

In other words, does it really take a spoonful of sugar (or five of them) to make the milk go down? Or can we train our children to eat and enjoy food that tastes the way it’s actually supposed to?

 

And by “our children” I mean everyone else’s children; my kids drink whole, unhomogenized, white milk from Cedar Summit. Or they drink another nutritionally essential beverage: water.

 

One last thought: I’m wondering which Minnesotan school district will be the first to remove flavored milk from its lunch rooms. Minneapolis schools took it off its breakfast menu; a small step, but at least one in the right direction. Do you know of any others considering it? Please let me know.

 

Or, if you think chocolate milk should stay a part of school lunches, I want to hear from you, too.

 

And by "I want to hear from you," I mean... yeah, I really do.

 

 

 

Shari Danielson is a frequent contributor fo Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last post was Food Coaches Help Schools' Youngest Students Make Better Food Choices.

 

Comments

Great article, Shari. I have to say I understand why kids don't like "unflavored" milk in schools. If I were given the choice between water and conventional skim milk (which tastes practically like water to me), I would probably choose water myself. It's been a mistake to take the fat (i.e. flavor) out of milk, and then replace it with another flavoring far more unhealthy. I'm hoping organic whole milk will become the school lunch standard at some point in my lifetime, though it feels like we have a long way to go to get to that point.

My daughter was allergic to milk until around age 5 and never developed much of a taste for it. I provide organic chocolate milk for her school lunches (they only have nonorganic with high fructose corn syrup - yuck) but she doesn't have one every day. When she does choose to have one it counts as one of her daily three "sugars." In other words, it's a treat.

What is the fuss about milk? There is nothing wrong with drinking water. Plenty of calcium in cheese, yogurt, broccoli and other foods. Sugar is bad you say. In moderation it's just fine. Let the child have chocolate milk or ice cream if they like it. Just don't let them have it every day. Just my two cents.

I remember school lunch milk in elementary school was terrible! It was terrible because it seemed to be barely over room temp. Maybe that was just my school, I dunno...I LOVE the idea about the milk dispensers! Keep it cold, keep it flowing, and keep it fresh! Btw, I have 6 kids, none of them were offered anything at lunch but milk (organic 1%, or skim) or water, and now that some are in their teens, even when given some not so great choices, they still choose wisely! Start out consistant and they will generally stick to what they know. I can't imagine filling their bellies with all that sugar, corn syrup, and who knows what else!

I hear y'all. I don't think the issue is about drinking chocolate milk as a treat. But policies that remove cookies from schools but keep chocolate milk tell us that chocolate milk is seen as a replacement for white milk, not a treat. That's the disconnect IMO. As Shari points out, carrot cake can be delicious, but that doesn't mean it's a replacement for carrots.

God forbid we offer any alternative to milk that contains equal or more nutritional value. I question the dichotomy.

@ the questioning dichotomy...this is primarily elementary age based lunch beverages. There sure are many other choices throughout the day. What are some of your alternative suggestions? I understand, as I'm sure others do as well, that there are nutritious alternatives to milk, but at least for my children, it isn't the nutritional mainstay of the meal.

Sugar rots teeth. I say get the chocolate milk out of schools a.s.a.p. It should be a treat, not a daily routine.

Our school took chocolate and strawberry milk off the menu at the start of the school year, much to my delight. However, 3 months later, they brought it back. Here was their findings. They should have definitely tried longer...

http://www.depere.k12.wi.us/dickinson/thursday/Dec16/Milk%20offerings%20...

My kids don't take the hot lunch that comes with milk anyway, because it is usually fried, of poor quality and loaded with 'unnatural' ingredients...but that is another blog post!

My kids think the school milk is "nasty". They won't drink it chocolate or white at school. I remember thinking as a kid that school milk was bad as well. What do they do to that milk anyway? Is it the discount milk from the dairy that didn't pass the quality control flavor test and can't be pawned off at the retail level? Flavored milk is just one small part of the very bad school lunch program. Yes, flavored milk needs to be taken out of the lunchroom as a beverage choice. What we need is a nutritional education program. My kids do not receive one scrap of information about nutrition. Most parents I know are clueless as well. A friend was so proud of herself for banning her kids from eating french fries. Instead, they could only eat potato chips!

Thanks all! Melissa, we really appreciate you sharing that study. At the risk of stating the obvious, those results are crazy-stacked. Why do we continue to act like our job is to respond to the choices our kids make, rather than guiding them - gently or firmly - towards what we want them to have?

The "analysis" doesn't tell us who took which kind of milk on the days when chocolate was offered, and it falls back on the idea that sugar filled milk is better than none at all.

It's like offering cookies and fruit to kids as a choice of dessert and then being surprised that they chose cookies. Why do we do this? So we can say we conducted "research," when in fact all we really want to do is to confirm what we already believe.

The chocolate milk is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to school lunches. And the food that's coming in from home in lunchboxes is no better.

I wonder, what has the Minneapolis school district's experience been with removing flavored milk from their breakfast menu? Are less kids drinking milk as a result, and if so, is this a satisfactory outcome?

Our school removed flavored milk at the beginning of the school year and we have even the most against "white" milk students now drinking it. Our milk consumption has not gone down. We serve whole milk also. We cook completely from scratch and make our own bread. To us, there is no other way. We are small, but believe that everyone can do it if they take small steps. We educate parents also and share our recipes. We all have a responsibility to our children. Why not start with "there is no other option that is permissible" and brainstorm in our communities as to how to make it happen as every community is different. We need to teach our parents and students how to cook from scratch and why it is imperative. It saves money for no other reason! As Ghandi so aptly put it.... Be the Change That You Wish to See in the World...

There should be no other way...

Dear Anonymous: What school do you work for? I want to send my kids there!

I just found this recipe for carrot cake muffins.
They are described as "sweet enough," and "packed with carrots." Gotta give these a try!
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/health/nutrition/01recipehealth.html?s...

Sigh. I believe our schools have the best intentions but as they say the road to h--- is paved with good intentions. Just a few weeks ago I received a list of healthy snacks that our schools pat came up with which they say will encourage childrens learning and improve behavior. The list of so called healthy options included low-fat popcorn, "granola" bars and whole grain, low fat crackers. Most granola bars I've seen, even the ones that are organic, have at least a tablespoon of added sugar in each one. Now, popcorn could be a good snack but of course they are suggesting popcorns that are labeled "light" which often seems to mean devoid of real oils or butter with added artificial flavors. Are we, the author and myself and others, truly the minority of adults who have researched the issues for ourselves and believe that real fat, from milk, butter, olive oil etc. Is GOOD for our kids, and processed carbs maybe not so much? Low fat or no fat or flavored milk is the only options offered at my kids school too.

I wish more parents took your knowledge and listened to it! We fight with the mother of my two step children on a regular basis b/c she believes that her 4 year old son should have free access to chocolate milk, all day, every day. I am against this idea and don't even offer chocolate milk. He drinks plain milk fine for us!

There's nothing wrong with chocolate milk with my childs lunch....the kids aren't getting a huge amount in that little milk carton...not all kids like regular milk, chocolate milk is not a horrific alternative...choose your battles, this is not one, we got sodas out of our schools, now that was an example of picking out battles wisely

Wonderful that you removed soda! If it was only sugar in that milk, it would be one thing... Please look up high fructose corn syrup and what it does to your brain. Children absorb toxins at six times the rate of adults and do not have the ability to detox as well either. One thing, children will fill up and not eat good food if given too much sugar. I realize that most schools do not offer great food and maybe that is what you mean. As far as the fat content in milk, we are being forced to only serve skim or 1% milk now, and the vitamins in milk that are added are all fat soluble? Hmmm.... What are they truly getting out of that milk? You are absolutely right on the choose your battles! I agree completely, just am feeling extremely responsible to do my job to the best of my ability, and I am lucky, I realize, that we serve really good food, so I would rather serve a healthy dessert filled with good ingedients once a week, instead of an alternative of flavored milk. Best of luck to you!

I believe in choice. I want my children to have the chance to choose wisely, though. my youngest is the last to attend elementary school and the only one who has no choice in what milk she drinks at school. why? because, while they technically loffer" whit milkn there is none left when she gets there. its gone by the time her 3rd grade class arrives. I wonder two thingj 1) why is there not enough white milk available so she can choose it, and 2) doesnt this show that more kids are choosing white milk than the school assumes they are? I agree that if we allow a variety of white milk (skim, whole) then that is far better than chocolate. I personally witnessed a toddler who - despite brushing teeth - was allowed to drink milk at every meal & his teeth decayed! In my home, where I babysat him, I never offered other than white milk. At first, he opted for water. But, gradually he drank the white milk. At least, I was not contributing to his tooth decay. I disagree that you can get enough calcium in broccoli, etc. I drank milk while growing up & never had a broken bone or even a cavity. As an adult, I became lactose intolerant, & since then I have had countless cavities, 5 teeth pulled, 4 crowned. And I have broken bones twice! Don't see a corelation? I do!

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