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It’s Time for Common Sense about Flavored Milk in Schools

Chocolate milk (as well as other flavored, sweetened milk) has recently become a prime target in the national debate over childhood obesity. That debate has led to outright bans in school lunchrooms—or to switches from flavored milk sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to formulas flavored with more expensive sugar.

What has been lost in the debate are a few basic facts:

  • A sugar is a sugar. HFCS is sugar made from corn, just as sucrose (table sugar) is sugar made from cane or beets. Compositionally, HFCS and table sugar are nearly identical, roughly half glucose and half fructose. They are nutritionally the same. They have the same number of calories and are metabolized by our bodies in the same way.
  • While the USDA is absolutely right—Americans should cut back on overall calories and added sugars—sugars play a valuable role in our diet. They help us get the nutrients we should consume from cereals and grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, including milk.
  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, barely 40% of children ages 6–11 receive the recommended daily calcium they need for their bones and teeth to grow properly. Among teenagers, only 10% of girls and 30% of boys (ages 12–19) get enough calcium.

The situation appears to go from bad to worse when flavored milk is pulled from schools. According to a 2009 survey of 58 elementary and secondary schools across the country by the Milk Processor Education Program, kids’ consumption of milk overall dropped 35% when flavored milk was removed from school menus.

We should be reasonable about the amount of sweets our children eat, but we should not deprive them of the nutrients they need by pulling flavored milk from lunchrooms—or by spending scarce resources on a more expensive sweetener.

James M. Rippe, M.D.
Founder and Director of the Rippe Lifestyle Institute
Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida

9 Responses

  1. Terrific! Why not grind up all the nutrients both macro and micro that we think kids need, and serve it to them in a birthday cake? Nutritional problems of the world will be solved! Yay, empty calories!

    School lunch should serve to educate kids’ palates and minds as well as offer nourishment. If the NSLP teaches them to like super-palatable foods, they aren’t going to learn good eating habits. Chocolate milk drinkers will become soda drinkers, baked-chip eaters will become fried chip eaters, WG LF pizza eaters will eat the refined, full-fat version, and WG cookie eaters will switch to snack cakes.

    I wish the food industry would take a fraction of the money going towards this lobbying effort and use it to help the NSLP with nutrition education programs. In particular, the dairy industry will benefit, as a plain-lowfat-milk drinking child is more likely to continue this habit as an adult…and a chocolate-milk-drinking child is highly likely to switch to soda.

  2. Michelle, technically, the cake wouldn’t be “empty calories” if it had nutrients. And I love chocolate milk, but haven’t drank soda regularly since I was 13. You do make a good point about “super palatable” foods. I’m always amazed when I hear someone say they don’t like fruit. Whaa? haha. It’s important to enjoy the taste of whole foods, not just eat them because you’re supposed to.

  3. Jordan – I take it you subscribe to the Bill Cosby diet? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083652/quotes?qt=qt0517648 I assume you wouldn’t really suggest that vitamin-enriched cake is a good way to feed our kids. Adding nutrients to empty calories doesn’t make the empty calories nutritious any more than having a vitamin (or milk) with your cookie makes the cookie good for you.

    There’s very little research on the habits of flavored milk drinkers outside of schools, and I think this is extremely shortsighted on the part of the industry. I have several anecdotes to your single one for flavored-milk-drinking kids switching to soda as soon as they aren’t required to choose milk – I’d be curious which ones are borne out by research.

  4. Chocolate milk was my drink of choice all the way through elementary and middle school…. and yes, even some of the time in high school as well. My family never drank soda regularly (they drink tea, water and “regular” milk) and I still do not now at 26. I almost always drink water with rare occasions of tea, “regular” milk, wine and very rarely soda. There is nothing wrong with Chocolate milk. Just like there’s nothing wrong with eating cake or cookies or chocolate or whatever else your heart so desires. The problem is when people indulge in these things in too much excess. Everything in moderation. A lot of people think that just because a food has the possibility of making you obese, then it will. That is not the case (I could eat enough of anything, healthy or not, and gain weight). We are meant to enjoy food and it’s not a bad thing to do so. However, our bodies were not created in an environment where we sit at computers all day long and only have a few feet walk to the vending machine to get some high calorie food. We are of incredibly efficient design and don’t burn calories as fast as most of us would want to. The key is to get a balanced nutritional diet and make sure you are not in taking more calories than your body needs. Nuts have a lot of fat in them… should we ban those too? Of course not. Most are highly nutritious (just as the calcium & vit. D in milk is good for you). As a parent, part of your job is to ensure your children get proper nutrition. It’s not the school’s job to police your children’s eating choices… it’s yours. I do believe that schools should offer a range of healthy choices to choose from, but having chocolate milk with your whole grain turkey sandwich, carrots & orange slices (for example) doesn’t doom your child to obesity and a lifelong habit of soda drinking. If you do not believe your child should drink flavored milk, then it is your job to see to it that they don’t. Whether it’s through teaching your child self discipline (always good) or instructing your child’s school not to allow the purchase of flavored milk, that’s your problem to deal with. I don’t want my child’s school (or my government for that matter) telling me what I’m allowed and not allowed to feed my children. As someone once quoted “The tyranny of “for your own good” may be the worst tyranny of all.” Learn responsibility for your actions and teach your children the same. Stop blaming someone else for you and your children’s problems. And as Dr. Rippe said, use some commonsense.

  5. “Personal responsibility” and “moderation” is standard food-industry spin. Kids are not under their parents’ care at school and parents have no control over their lunch choices – so you can’t pin the responsibility on poor parenting.

    I’m not asking parents to stop buying chocolate milk at the grocery store, or not to serve it at home – nor am I suggesting that we prevent anyone from packing Nestle quick or the like for their kids to add themselves. I’m asking that the default at schools be plain nonfat or lowfat milk: I don’t understand why this is so wildly unreasonable, other than it MIGHT cut into someone’s profits.

    Just as it’s our responsibility as a culture to make sure kids are developing their minds and not just reading comic books at school, it’s our responsibility to make sure they are developing their palates and not just eating candy-flavored foods at school. I’ve no objection to the occasional offering of flavored milk, but many kids get it 100% of the time, 2X a day (at breakfast, they often pour it over sugary cereal.)

    Sorry – there are few “whole grain turkey sandwich, carrots & orange slices” served in school lunches: at our school, standard school lunches are pancakes, syrup, and cookies w/chocolate milk, which is better than what they serve for breakfast.

  6. Oh, kids aren’t getting enough calcium, you say? I guess they couldn’t just, I don’t know, eat more whole fruits and vegetables that have naturally-occuring calcium, right? We *don’t* need dairy to survive, and we shouldn’t rely on sweetened, “flavored” milk to get the nutrients we need. Just like we shouldn’t rely on highly-processed, refined breakfast cereal to get the iron and B12 we need…because it’s ADDED after the fact anyway! Ridiculous. I read articles all the time that discuss study results that conflict with what Dr. Rippe purports about HFCS. If we need to do more studies, then we’ll do more studies, but don’t state facts about HFCS like there’s no chance in hell that it’s worse for you than table sugar.

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  9. You can’t change behavior learned at home. Kids will eat what they like, period. You can live in this crazy Utopian dream that you will be able to control/force kids to eat whatever you make them, but you must not have any kids. Real change starts in the home, and as long as there are a majority of these kids on food stamps (which they are) where they’re parents can buy whatever garbage they want, things wont change. Most of them get free breakfast and free lunch at school, where the new rules make it impossible for anything to taste good, or give them proper sustenance to make it through the day, they will just go home and eat the garbage they buy on food stamps. So you can see all of these over the top govt. regs. make it even worse for the children.

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