Family Matters

The Chocolate Milk Wars: A Mom’s Perspective

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As any parent knows, you can prepare healthy food but you can’t make your kids eat it. So there are a few tricks we parents have up our culinary sleeves, particularly when it comes to calcium. Two words: chocolate milk.

Who knew a little cocoa powder could create such a ruckus? Several school districts across the country — including the Boulder Valley School District in Louisville, Colo., whose director of nutrition services derided chocolate milk as “soda in drag” — have banned flavored milk, while others have substituted the high-fructose corn syrup frequently found in the ingredient list of flavored milks with regular sugar.

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While the sweet treat has been decried as little more than liquid candy by opponents, professional health organizations — some supported in part by the dairy industry — contend that kids who drink fat-free or low-fat flavored milk get more nutrients than children who shun milk altogether.

Milk is unquestionably a power food, containing nine essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and protein. But, certainly, sweetened milk amps up the calories, compared with plain old moo, making the decision of whether to endorse the chocolately stuff a tough call: is the extra nutrition worth the extra calories?

In Los Angeles, one of the latest battlegrounds in the chocolate-milk war, a cup of fat-free chocolate milk served in public school cafeterias has 20 grams of sugar compared with white milk’s 14 grams. The nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified is considering offering only regular milk to schoolchildren.

That’s all kids find on the menu in Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif. But other districts that followed suit have reversed their decisions; in Fairfax County, Va., the Washington Post described chocolate milk’s triumphant return to the lunch line after being reformulated with beet sugar instead of corn syrup:

In November, when trying to create a chocolate milk formula that satisfied as many parties as possible, the district held a “taste party” at Lane Elementary School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

“Tastes really chocolatey,” one student wrote on the survey distributed to 24 child-testers.

“Really awesome,” wrote another.

Maybe a little too awesome: school officials had to trim the sugar to 22 grams per cup — which still amounts to more than 5 teaspoons — before rolling the beverage out last month.

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Some anti-chocolatiers say the reason kids don’t drink unsweetened milk is because they’ve always been offered a sugary version. “We’ve taught them to drink chocolate milk, so we can unteach them that,” Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District, told the Associated Press. “Our kids line up for milk.”

Her district has not analyzed whether fewer kids drink milk now that flavored milk is no longer sold, but the Milk Processor Education Program — which says that flavored milk accounts for more than 70% of milk in school cafeterias —  says milk consumption drops by a third in such situations.

Writing last week in EducationNews, school food reformer Dana Woldow called for a “truce in the chocolate milk wars:”

The anti-chocolate milk forces are wrong to lead the public to believe that chocolate milk is identical to soda or candy. … However, flavored milk’s opponents are right to object to the amount of added sugar in current formulations of the product.

A recent press release from the International Dairy Foods Association boasts “the average calorie level of flavored milk sold during the 2009-2010 school year was reduced nearly 8% compared to the 2006-2007 school year.” Eight percent? Over three years? Are you kidding me? News flash, Dairy Industry — it’s not enough!

Of course, she’s right. I can wax on about the bone-building benefits of milk. I can employ a serious face and a serious voice to reiterate doctor’s orders to my kids to toss back at least two cups of milk a day. But, alas, the only way to ensure they actually drink it is to disguise it — they like it warm, with a scoop of homemade hot cocoa mix or a swirl of honey. At least, unlike commercially prepared chocolate milk, I can control how much sugar goes into their cup.

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Would it be preferable for them to drink plain milk? Of course, and if your child likes unadulterated moo, give yourself a parenting point. But that just doesn’t happen outside of breakfast cereal in my family. And truth be told, it’s none other than my kids’ pediatrician who advised me to embrace a little sugar: sweetened milk, he told me years ago, was far better than no milk.

Doctor’s orders, and I’m sticking to them.