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Swimming in a Sea of Chocolate Milk: Is it a Healthful Option?

November 10, 2009

If you’re my contemporary, you’re likely familiar with the expression “Raise your hand if you’re sure” in commercials for a popular deodorant. But now, a new campaign from the dairy industry that will launch on Monday November 16th and ask you to “Raise your hand for chocolate milk” may put those consumers who already feed their children chocolate or flavored milk at ease, but leave others unsure or confused about whether or not chocolate milk is a healthful option because it has added sugar–something we’re all “supposed” to cut back on. The upcoming campaign is already stirring up a debate among health experts about how to help consumers make the most healthful, well-informed choices when it comes to liquid calories.

Just this morning, as I read through the New York Times, I coincidentally stumbled upon an article about a study featured in the November issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition touting the anti-inflammatory properties of chocolate milk. The study found that subjects who consumed skim milk spiked with flavonoid-rich cocoa (the cocoa was added in the form of soluble cocoa powder) twice a day for four weeks has significantly lower levels of several markers for inflammation as well as higher good HDL cholesterol levels compared with those just given plain white skim milk.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found consuming flavored OR plain milk (vs no milk) had a positive impact on overall nutrient intake and no negative effect on BMI (a measure of body weight) in US children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 18.

I must divulge that I’m a lover of most things chocolate (milk chocolate, that is). But as I feel I’m suddenly swimming in a sea of chocolate milk these days (and you may as well), I couldn’t help but weigh in on this timely topic.

On one hand, the chocolate milk campaign is responding to the decreased availability of chocolate milk at a number of schools. Those involved in the campaign argue that if chocolate milk is removed from schools, kids will drink less milk, and miss out on the many key nutrients milk provides (including calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, and others). They also argue that flavored milk is a better choice than sugary soda and other sugary beverages that are loaded with calories and provide few if any nutrients.

Health experts including Marion Nestle, PhD, a Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University, and Marlene Schwartz of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and others are certainly not fans of this upcoming initiative to say the least. In her blog post, Nestle argues the initiative is “something ripe for satire.”

Here are the facts.

*One cup (8 ounces) of skim milk has 83 calories, 12.47 grams total sugar (all from lactose, naturally occurring sugar in milk; no added sugar), and 0.2 grams fat.
*One cup (8 ounces) of 1% or low fat milk has 102 calories, 12.69 grams of total sugar (no added sugar), and 2.37 grams fat.
*One cup (8 ounces) of 1% or low fat chocolate milk has 158 calories, 24.85 grams sugar (12.16 of those grams, or about 3 teaspoons (4 grams per teaspoon), comes from added sugar), and 2.5 grams of fat.

At schools, you won’t be able to have kids make their own flavored milk. But if your kids want to have flavored milk at home, they can make their own by adding 2 tablespoons of light chocolate syrup to skim milk. Here’s what they’ll get in one cup of skim chocolate milk: 137 calories, 22.47 grams sugar (10 of those from added sugar), and 0.34 grams fat. So you’ll save 21 calories, 2.38 grams sugar (a little more than 1/2 teaspoon), and 2.16 grams of fat vs low fat chocolate milk–admittedly a small savings, but a savings nonetheless in terms of fat, sugar, and calories.

Bottom line here? Yes, you get key nutrients in milk whether it’s plain white or flavored. But I’d argue that skim milk is still the gold standard. Low fat plain or flavored options can also be healthful choices, especially when compared to sugary beverages devoid of nutrients. BUT I will continue to recommend that for those parents whose children are not allergic to milk, plain whole or reduced fat milk should still be the first option offered to infants aged one and above; for those two and older, plain skim or 1 percent milk is a better bet.

Don’t give up if it takes your kids a while to learn to love low fat or skim milk. Like with all foods and beverages, your children may need many exposures to an item before they learn to like or prefer it. Don’t succumb to the temptation to offering flavored milk first to your kids at a young age because this can potentially teach your child to prefer only flavored milk (and dislike plain milk altogether).

Yes, some milk (flavored or not) is certainly better than no milk–but if you give your children primarily plain (as opposed to flavored) milk from an early age, you’re setting them up to enjoy this wholesome, nutritious beverage–my kids, aged 11 and 7, are and have always been huge milk drinkers and don’t even like flavored milk (though their mom admittedly enjoys a cup of chocolate milk from time to time).

If you feel that you’ve passed the point of no return and flavored milk is your child’s only or preferred source of calcium (and they don’t eat yogurt), use this as an opportunity to teach them that while any milk is healthful, flavored milk is essentially milk and cookies. If dessert is usually one cup of ice cream or 3 cookies, encourage your kids to cut back to 2 cookies or 1/2 cup of ice cream for every cup of flavored milk they have each day. If they decide it’s not worth it to give up on their treats, perhaps they’ll go for the plain white stuff–they may even learn to like it! It’s all about choices. Keep in mind that kids preferences can change over time, and even if they don’t like plain low fat or skim milk now, it doesn’t mean they never will.

Sources: Emily Fredrix (AP): http://bit.ly/121CKR; Marion Nestle: http://bit.ly/4Gwfq6; Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2008: http://bit.ly/4kyhRG.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa Fielding permalink
    November 10, 2009 4:39 pm

    Thanks for this – it is very helpful. How much milk should my 6 year old daughter and 8 year old son be drinking per day anyway? Does yogurt and those yogurt drinks count? I know they are filled with sugar too!

    • November 10, 2009 5:24 pm

      hi Lisa,

      According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, kids between 6 and 8 years of age should aim for the equivalent of 2 to 3 cups of milk per day. Yogurt and cheese can count toward this requirement. As for yogurts, I often recommend unsweetened plain ones (you can add your own fruit); flavored and fruit on the bottom yogurts do have added sugar, and yogurt drinks tend to be sugary as well (and perhaps don’t pack in as much calcium as a cup of yogurt does). Of course any and all foods can fit into a healthy diet (especially calcium-rich milk and yogurt)–and if your kids will eat yogurt (even if has added sugars), or likes yogurt drinks, just be mindful of cutting excess sugar calories elsewhere in their diet so they don’t go overboard on calories and save enough room calorie-wise for other healthful, nutrient-rich foods.

  2. sharon permalink
    November 25, 2009 9:04 am

    Hi Elisa, thanks for the information and expert point of view. We recently learned that our son (who loves milk, cheese, yogurt) is sensitive/may be allergic to dairy. He seems to like soy milk and yogurt. Is soy a healthful choice? How much is enough? I read something about avoiding soy products b/c of estrogen. Is it bad to give a boy soy? What is rice milk and is that better? Thanks for being a wonderful guide on this journey.

    • December 20, 2009 6:09 pm

      hi Sharon,

      Soy foods can be quite healthful; they’re considered complete sources of high quality protein (like animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods) because they contain all the essential amino acids needed by the body (these amino acids work in concert to create proteins that have so many vital body functions). Soy foods are also rich in fiber, B vitamins, potassium, and calcium. But you, like many other parents, are concerned about whether it’s safe for your son to consume soy. Soy foods are rich in phytoestrogens, plant chemicals that act like the hormone estrogen (a female hormone) in the body, and some are concerned that too much estrogen can cause cancer or impaired growth. Although there’s little data to support the idea that soy foods are unsafe for consumption by children, there are many unknowns. Many studies have, however, shown that soy foods can be part of a healthful diet in moderate amounts. If you decide to give your son soy foods, choose whole soy foods over processed ones when possible; if you opt for soy milk, make sure its fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D (rice milk can also be fortified but will have a lot less protein and more carbohydrate vs cow’s milk). Most importantly, make sure to give your son plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other protein-rich foods like fish, nuts/seeds, lean meats and poultry to meet all his nutrient needs to grow and develop optimally.

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  1. UPDATE: Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk? « The Ugly Nutrition Truth

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