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.