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


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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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized and award-winning health and nutrition expert, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books. An avid walker, she loves motivating others to #moveitorloseit. A book lover, she recently earned a certificate in children’s literature from Stony Brook Southampton and is currently working on several young adult novels. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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