OPINION: Keep chocolate milk, set standards for added sugar



Chocolate milk is again in peril in our nation’s schools.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a ban on the sweetened dairy drink for elementary and middle school students that would begin in fall 2025.

That would leave the unflavored, fat-free or low-fat, variety as the only milk option.

Chocolate milk has been around in the U.S. since the late 1600s, when it was first sold as a medicinal cure before becoming widely available commercially.

How did it land at the center of the debate on childhood obesity?

It’s the most popular milk choice at schools, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. And, as many parents will attest, lots of kids won’t drink milk unless it is flavored.

We also know that childhood obesity is a growing issue. Over roughly the last 25 years, the youth obesity rate has increased 49%. In Georgia, 18% of children ages 10-17 were obese based on data released a couple of years ago by the organization Trust for America’s Health. Added sugars, like those in chocolate milk, are part of the problem. An 8-ounce carton of chocolate milk may contain more than half of the amount of sugar that children should be limited to daily.

When my daughter was in elementary school, we had a long conversation about chocolate milk after I discovered not one, but two cartons of the sweet stuff in her backpack. I put water and milk (sometimes chocolate milk) in the lunches I packed for her, but apparently there was also a wellspring of free chocolate milk in the school cafeteria. I told her chocolate milk should be an occasional treat, not something to binge drink every day.

The government has waffled on the chocolate milk issue for well over a decade. In 2012, under the Obama administration, stricter requirements for federally subsidized school meals included a rule that flavored milk had to be fat free. Six years later, the Trump administration loosened the regulations to include low-fat flavored milk.

Local school district actions have been just as indecisive. In 2011, the school board in New Haven Connecticut banned chocolate milk and, in 2019, it decided to bring it back. But, under the new rules, chocolate milk could be served only to high school students, only at lunchtime and only twice a week. A school district in Washington state began offering chocolate milk five days a week, after 12 years of limiting it to only once a week on Fridays.

My colleague Ty Tagami wrote about all the ways in which some Georgia school districts are navigating the chocolate milk debate.

Part of the debate is centered around the limited research that’s been done on the impact of removing chocolate milk from school cafeterias.

One 2015 study supporting chocolate milk in schools stated it is better for kids to drink flavored milk instead of no milk.

Fellow physicians took to task the study’s authors, two of whom disclosed receiving support from the dairy and chocolate industries. Still, the researchers argued that no one had shown that cutting flavored milk consumption would reduce childhood obesity.

In 2020, acknowledging the dearth of data, researchers examined the impact of removing chocolate milk from middle and high school cafeterias in a diverse, low-income school district where 63% of students were eligible for free or reduced meals.

The study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was conducted among 24 schools in California. It found that, while the proportion of students selecting milk declined 13%, kids still got enough calcium, protein, and vitamin D in their diets. Meanwhile, their consumption of added sugars significantly decreased.

That data would seem to support a ban on flavored milk in schools, but why should chocolate milk be the only target?

Currently there is no limit on added sugar in school meal programs. The USDA should set standards for added sugars in school meals as a whole as well as any individual packaged or processed foods served in schools.

Food manufacturers should be pushed to decrease added sugars in foods and beverages provided to schools (and to the rest of us, for that matter).

And parents, as always, should make the choices that feel best for their families.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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