Milk skirmishes

Just how good is chocolate milk for schoolchildren?

Sugary junk food or nutrition-packed snack? That question’s on a lot of minds as chocolate milk gets an image makeover: it’s now being promoted by the American dairy industry as a healthy choice for kids. In U.S. schools, flavoured milks (like chocolate or strawberry) account for about 70 per cent of all the milk kids drink. So, when concerns about obesity prompted some to take them off cafeteria menus, the industry was quick to respond: it rolled out a campaign, called “Raise your hand for chocolate milk,” including a petition, a Twitter feed, and slick ads with actress Rebecca Romijn. Like plain milk, flavoured milk offers nine essential nutrients, the campaign notes, “plus the taste-appeal kids go for.” While the chocolate kind has more sugar (roughly the same as a glass of orange juice), the campaign calls this an “acceptable trade-off,” noting that over half of all teens aren’t getting enough calcium, risking their bone health down the road. Taking flavoured milks out of schools could do more harm than good, the argument goes, encouraging kids to choose less nutritious drinks like soda.

In Canada, the debate is playing out in P.E.I., where parents are pushing for chocolate milk to be subsidized in school cafeterias, just as white milk is. Jennifer Taylor, an expert in childhood nutrition at the University of P.E.I., says only half of all kids there are drinking enough milk. Taylor, who heads the province’s Healthy Eating Alliance, supports subsidizing chocolate milk, even though some people react “like we’re recommending rum to children.” (In New Brunswick, both chocolate and plain milk are subsidized. P.E.I. has no plans to introduce a similar program for now, because the current budget won’t allow it.)

Adults could stand to benefit, too, says the Dairy Farmers of Canada, which promotes chocolate milk as a way for athletes to refuel: it replenishes electrolytes and carbohydrates, like a sports drink, and has protein, too. One U.S. study of male soccer players found that those who drank low-fat chocolate milk after training had less evidence of muscle damage than those who got a high-carb sports drink. In another study, Spanish researchers found that regular consumption of chocolate milk could reduce inflammation (but not as much as red wine).

Yet chocolate milk has its detractors, including Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa: he likened it to a “liquid chocolate bar” on his blog, Weighty Matters. “The sugar in chocolate milk is not negated by its nutrients,” he says. Beyond that, “there’s no calcium emergency in our society. The emergency is obesity.” Experts worry promoting chocolate milk could shape bad eating habits and send mixed messages to kids, who might come to expect a sugar rush with their healthy food. And, while those who gorge on junk food tend to cut calories later in the day to compensate, says Barry Popkin, an obesity expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when those extra calories come in a drink—juice, soda, or a Rolo-flavoured milkshake, which has a whopping 400 calories per 473-ml bottle—they won’t.

It’s true that kids might complain if chocolate milk is taken off the menu, but research suggests they’ll learn to cope. In the U.S., studies have shown that kids will eat low-sugar cereals, and drink white milk, when that’s what’s available. “If you give a kid the choice between regular milk and water,” says Popkin, “they’ll get enough regular milk.”