This post was updated in April 2019.
Given all the publicity around sugar-laden drinks, high fructose corn syrup and unhealthy weight in kids, offering chocolate milk to your child can be a confusing prospect.
As a pediatric dietitian, one of the most FAQ (frequently asked questions) I receive is this: Is chocolate milk good for you?
In this post, I will attempt to look at the facts and weigh the pros and cons of chocolate milk in your child’s diet.
Ultimately, I hope you will have enough information to feel good about your stance, whatever it may be.
Is Chocolate Milk Good for Kids?
Chocolate milk is considered a flavored milk. The addition of chocolate adds sugar, calories, and a boost of sweet flavor.
Many children enjoy it at lunch. School lunch programs across the country have been scrutinized for making flavored milk part of the lunch fare for children. Yet, some children would never drink milk unless it was flavored.
I believe the influence on your child’s diet boils down to how often and how much your child is drinking chocolate milk.
The extra sugar has been researched and found to have an ideal blend of carbohydrate and protein. Carbs and protein are important for an athlete’s healing and recovery after a workout.
To help you understand this topic better, I’ll break down a few key concepts and facts about chocolate milk for kids.
The Benefits of Chocolate Milk
There are some up sides to chocolate milk.
The Nutrient Composition
Unfortunately, many parents may hear “chocolate” and think sugar.
[And some adults get nervous about sugar being too addictive and causing cravings for more sweets.]
People get confused by the carb content. They think the carbs are purely from table sugar. But, there’s more to the story.
I tried to clarify that point in this article about common milk myths.
In addition to added sugar, chocolate milk contains the naturally-occurring sugar called lactose.
When you combine sucrose from added chocolate and naturally-occuring lactose from milk, it can certainly look like a hefty dose of sugar!
But that number represents both sucrose and lactose.
Bone Nutrients in All Milk
Don’t forget the 9 important nutrients that are present in this healthy drink for kids. There are good nutrients to be had, especially calcium and vitamin D, which are not always easy for kids to get enough of when they skip out on milk.
Calcium and vitamin D are key nutrients to building strong bones, which exclusively happens during childhood.
In fact, calcium and vitamin D are consumed inadequately across all age groups (except children under age 2) and among all demographics.
My book, The Calcium Handbook: Over 100 Ways to Grow Healthy Bones for Your Child, can help further your understanding of calcium-containing food options to include for your child so that you can help your child build strong bones.
It Tastes Good
Is chocolate milk good on the taste buds? Many children think so.
Children like to eat food that tastes good, and that holds true in the case of drinking milk.
Many studies published have shown that milk consumption is higher in schools when flavored milk is offered.
A Recovery Drink after Sports Training
As I mentioned, chocolate milk has been studied as a workout recovery drink, and from all indications, it has a positive impact on muscle recovery and growth, and helps replenish glycogen stores in muscle tissue.
From soccer players to cyclists, it appears that, when consumed after prolonged exercise, the combination of carbohydrate and protein has positive effects on the body’s ability to recover and rebuild muscle.
Parents of athletes take note: 8-10 oz appears to do the trick.
That’s why I stock it in my home routinely.
If you’ve got an athlete, you might be interested in my popular sports nutrition book for young athletes, called, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete, where I cover the research and role of flavored milk.
I also have a self-paced education program to teach young athletes how to fuel their bodies for sport, also called Eat Like a Champion. You can learn more about it here.
The Negative Effects of Chocolate Milk
And there are some downsides…
It is true with anything we eat–too much is too much. Same for flavored milk, also.
Too much of a good thing can be bad for your child. Think about too much fruit and the resulting trips to the bathroom. (I’ve experienced this first hand with my kids!)
Chocolate milk can be part of a healthy and satisfying diet as long as you keep the quantities consumed in check.
Aim for three servings of dairy per day, on average, and be mindful of the portion size and how often you offer it. Dairy can be yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, milk or other dairy product.
It’s not a good idea to offer three servings of chocolate milk, so make sure you rotate foods in this category.
Last, be conscious of the recommendations for sugar (less than 10% of total caloric intake).
Allergy to Milk
Food allergy may warrant avoidance of milk and all foods made with milk. Consumption of milk and foods made with milk can cause swelling, hives and anaphylaxis.
If your child is allergic to milk, avoid chocolate milk and other flavored milks.
Does dairy cause acne? I’ve heard many people state their skin cleared up after removing dairy from their diet. Scientifically, the research does not show a cause and effect relationship between dairy and acne, however, there are a few studies that suggest consumption of milk and ice cream are associated with acne.
No association was found with cheese and yogurt.
It’s Your Decision!
Ultimately, whether you choose to offer chocolate milk to your child or not, the decision is yours. If your child is really drawn to chocolate milk and you find he’s drinking too much, you may need to lay down some guidelines. If it’s an occasional drink for your child, you may decide to be relaxed about it.
Either way is okay.
Flavored Milk in School
Many schools have eliminated chocolate milk. Is this the right thing to do? I’m not sure.
I can see limiting the number of days it is served. I can see assuring that it’s a low fat version.
A complete ban, though?
When it is pulled out of schools, overall milk consumption drops by an average of 35%.
Studies suggest this occurs because fewer students choose milk (clearly their preference was chocolate or flavored milk over white milk), and more milk was wasted.
Unfortunately over time, an improved acceptance of white milk did not occur, making overall consumption of milk decrease.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that calcium and vitamin D continue to be shortfall nutrients (nutrients with inadequate intake) for children.
A review of calcium intake and status in children indicate that up to 50% of children as young as 2 years are not getting enough calcium.
While the optimist (and dietitian) in me knows that children can get calcium from other sources, the realist in me thinks differently.
I believe that these shortfall nutrients may create some real health problems for children as they age, particularly in their bone health.
Chocolate milk may help close that gap and helps kids build strong bones.
What I Do with My Kids
When I plan food and meals, I lead with nutrients in mind. I look for the foods that will fulfill the nutritional requirements of my kids.
I know that without milk and dairy products, my kiddos are unlikely to get what they need, especially for calcium and vitamin D.
I aim for 3 servings of milk or dairy per day. I used to not purchase it for my home when my children were younger.
Then, if they chose to have it at school, that was fine with me, as that was the only place they were getting it.
Now I buy it for my young athletes.
I am careful not to vilify or eliminate flavored milk. I find ways we can work it in reasonably. I treat it just as I would the birthday cakes, the Thanksgiving pie, and the “fun food” (high fat, high sugar treats and junky food) my children eat.
As I see it, making flavored milk the bad guy gets us stuck in the muck, and it becomes difficult to classify and navigate the other foods in our less than perfect diets.
But of course, I like nearly all foods, and want my kids to be open-minded and like them also.
To me, it’s less about chocolate milk, and more about the balance, variety, and amounts of all the foods we serve our children.
Let us be better at teaching our children about choice, variety, balance, and amounts, rather than spending time and energy instilling fear and confusion about food.
Time well spent, in my humble, dietitian’s opinion.
What’s your stance?
Sound off in the comment section below!