RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Don't have a cow, really. It's just chocolate milk, says the dairy industry. But an ad campaign promoting flavored milks over healthy, plain white milk has some nutritionists up in arms.
THE DETAILS: The debate started at the beginning of November, when the industry-supported National Dairy Council, citing research from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Dietetic Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and other health organizations, launched the campaign, which touted chocolate and other flavored milk in school lunch programs as a healthier alternative to sugary sodas and fruit drinks. Research has shown, the group notes, that kids who drink sugar-sweetened dairy products are more likely to get their recommended allotment of calcium than kids who drank sodas, and less likely to drink those sodas and fruit drinks, than kids who didn't drink flavored milk. The AAP has stated in the past that milk of any sort provides 72 percent of a child's calcium requirements, 22 percent of their vitamin B12, 19 percent of their daily protein, and 15 percent of their vitamin A. The group also recommends that children drink dairy products during adolescence to ward off hip fractures, the risk of which can increase up to 50 percent among kids who experience even a slight 5 percent deficit in bone mass while they’re young. The Dairy Council says that without flavored milk, kids would gravitate towards sodas and sugary fruit drinks, which provide little, if any, nutritional value.
However, critics of the campaign, including the "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper, the director of nutrition services in Boulder, Colorado’s school district, who has made a name for herself by advocating for healthier food in school lunch programs, point to the fact that the sugar in flavored milk (usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup) adds 40 to 60 calories to each pint. That can give a kid five extra pounds of weight over the course of a school year. Given the rising rates of childhood obesity, critics argue, the benefits of flavored milk don't outweigh the detriments of weight gain. This side of the debate prefers total removal of flavored milks in favor of white milk, no-added-sugar fruit juices, and water.
The National School Lunch Program still promotes the option of chocolate milk. It's also supporting "Flavored Milk Friday" surveys, being conducted in some schools and school districts to see whether, in the absence of flavored milks, kids will still drink white milk, and whether they'll opt for white over flavored milks when both options are offered. The results of these surveys are expected in January.
WHAT IT MEANS: It may be difficult to overcome kids' innate desire for sweet things, and if sweetened, flavored milks are the best delivery system for vital nutrients like calcium, perhaps we should back off, says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition-policy consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Sometimes a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down," she says. "Of course, we would prefer that kids not have any sugar, that they would prefer plain milk over flavored. But it's more important to teach children that flavored milks are better than drinking soda." She says that research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association has found very little difference in the weights and nutrient intakes of kids who drink flavored milk and kids who drink plain milk, and that should give parents some comfort, she adds.
"Chocolate milk is really the least of our problems right now with our children," she says. "We have more problems with them eating other unhealthy snacks and junk food. What they're getting in school lunches is much healthier than what they're getting in vending machines."