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Chocolate Milk is Not the Devil in Disguise

Here we are with chocolate milk back in the news again. It has become second nature to vilify or sanctify food, especially milk. But does that really help kids? I don’t think so.

I gave a talk last night to some preschool moms, and it occurred to me that our time is better spent educating parents on what to feed (and how to do it and why kids behave the way they do around food and eating–aka The Fearless Feeding Strategy) with the emphasis on striking a balance of foods.

And yes, they asked me about chocolate milk. I told them my perspective and how I manage it in my home: I don’t fret about chocolate milk because my kids occasionally buy school lunch, and I don’t routinely purchase chocolate milk for our home. I also don’t draw attention to it by calling it out as a “bad food.”

I am re-sharing this post from last year, as I believe it is still relevant to the conversation:

kids walking outside a school bus

While I agree that some children can live well and thrive without dairy, I don’t agree with sweeping it off the lunch line, flavored or not.

Milk: Not Responsible for Childhood Obesity

Truth be told, there’s a long list of reasons for America’s child weight problem epidemic, many of which have nothing to do with food. Exercise, parenting, economics, genetic predisposition and child development – these all influence a child’s tendency towards obesity, or not.

Some believe that the mere presence of flavored or chocolate milk in the lunchroom is temptation beyond all reason, causing unregulated consumption.

This rationale rings like a Laura Numeroff children’s book:

“If you give a pig a pancake, she’ll want some syrup with it…”

If you give a child chocolate milk at school, she’ll want a gallon when she gets home…and all the other sweets in the house.

Fear mongering works, especially when it relates to food and childhood obesity.  The worst-case scenario can move mountains (and folks) to eliminate “bad foods,” in the name of health.

girl sipping chocolate milk through a straw

Flavored Milk isn’t the Devil

If you look at the nutrient intake data of children, you’ll find that sugar intake is high—too high.

But it’s not coming from chocolate or flavored milk.

The top contributors of sugar intake for children aged 2-18 years, according a 2010 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics were: soda (32%), fruit drinks (15%), grain desserts (11%), dairy desserts (8%), and candy (7%).

In addition, the top 5 contributors to calorie intake for children (2-18 years) were: grain desserts, pizza, soda, yeast breads and chicken.

Chocolate milk doesn’t make either list

If you really want to have an impact on children’s sugar consumption in schools, you’ll need to nix the competition that undermines healthy food: vending machines containing soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and juices, and take a look at the dessert menu.

Chocolate Milk Nutrition

Taking milk off the menu may leave a nutrition gap for many children.

Calcium

Here’s what a child will need to eat (at school or at home) to match the calcium contributions from an 8-ounce glass of milk (~300 mg calcium):

  • 1 cup fortified soy milk
  • 1 ½ cup calcium-fortified uncooked tofu
  • 1 cup fortified orange juice
  • 1 ½ cup collard greens
  • 1 ½ cups turnip greens
  • 1 cup frozen spinach
  • 3 cups broccoli
  • 1 ¼ cup soybeans
  • 3 cups pinto beans
  • 4 cups chick peas (garbanzo beans)
  • 5 ounces (~120) almonds
  • 3-4 Tbsp. sesame seeds
  • 5 ounces canned sardines (with bones)
  • 2 Tbsp. blackstrap molasses
  • 6 fresh oranges

Children aged 9-18 years need 1300 mg calcium per day. Multiply the above list by 4 and you’re in the ballpark.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D requirements of children are another issue.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) raised the vitamin D requirements for school-age kids and teens to 600 IU per day.

Without milk, which provides ~100 IU per cup, schools and/or parents will need to serve up more fortified orange juice, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, and fortified non-dairy milks to fill the already gaping vitamin D hole for children.

Of course, getting kids to like and eat these substitute foods regularly so they meet their needs for calcium and vitamin D is the real challenge–and a battle in many homes.

When it comes to sweeping nutrition recommendations for children, execution often trumps idealism.

What We Should Be Doing

The biggest problem of all is distraction. Hopping on the “Milk is Bad” bandwagon and removing milk from schools removes a safety net for many children, and may cause unintended consequences in the long run.

Managing over-consumption of chocolate milk can be battled with education, awareness, and thoughtfully planned menus from the school and limits set by the parent.

Our efforts are better aimed at solutions that really work.

How do we improve the nutrition environment in schools?

  • Scale back offerings of flavored milk. Offer flavored milk one or two days each week; on the other three days, provide unflavored milk or non-dairy fortified substitutes.
  • Address the real sugar problem: the availability of sodas, sports drinks, juices, desserts and candy in schools. New research shows that states with the toughest laws on competitive food sales (vending machines and fundraising) had slimmer and healthier kids.
  • Teach cooking, home economics, and parenting classes. Arm the next generation with tools and know-how to feed their children well.
  • Trim up desserts using the 90/10 Rule and offer them once or twice a week.

Children need to learn how to navigate the food environment—one that contains chocolate milk, candy, desserts and fried foods.

This isn’t easy today. But controlling or restricting less than healthy foods is a short-term tactic, and may do little to prepare children for the long-term reality of making good choices for a lifetime of health.

How do you feel about chocolate milk?

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  1. Great post. I have a glass of chocolate milk every other day, and I’m more aware than most about what I put into my body. I could find a hundred things children AND adults consume on a daily basis that’s far worse (I don’t even like saying worse since it’s not bad in the first place). Anywho, I completely agree.