Flavored Milk Update: Let’s focus on what’s important in school nutrition

As a Registered Dietitian (RD) who has dedicated over 30 years of my work and volunteer life to child nutrition, I am astounded that some folks are still focused on banning flavored milk from schools. When I was asked my opinion on banning flavored milk yesterday, I had to update my 2011 column about The Flavored Milk Wars: Is a tempest in a milk carton good for kids’ nutrition? Full Disclosure: I am proud to work with the dairy farm families represented by National Dairy Council and regional dairy councils, such as Western Dairy Association.

Really? Now? When schools need all the help that they can get to roll out historic and challenging new regulations? Our time is better spent collaborating on getting more red/orange/dark green vegetables into kids instead of trashcans, on developing plans for school garden, or a campaign to get more calcium into young people, especially tween and teen girls.

First, let’s look at the state of flavored milk served in schools today. This is not a “milkshake” in a plastic bottle nor the flavored milk that you drank in school. In the past six years, the dairy industry has responded to nutrition concerns and renovated their products dramatically:

  • From 2006 to 2012, the average calories in school flavored milk decreased by 34 calories – to around 130 calories in 8 ounces. This is only about 40 more calories than fat-free white milk.
  • Decreasing calories has been accomplished by reducing fat (to fat-free milk) and reducing added sugar. Added sugar in flavored milk has declined by 40% – by over 6 grams per cup – during the past 6 years.
  • Many dairies now offer fat-free flavored milk with just 10 to 12 grams of added sugar per cup. Some anti-flavor activists fail to remember all milk has 12 grams of natural sugar (lactose) straight from the cow!
  • Now, the fat-free chocolate milk served in many schools across the country has 130 calories, 0 grams of fat and saturated fat, and 22 grams of total sugar. That’s 12 grams from naturally occurring lactose and just 10 grams or 2½ teaspoons of added sugar. 

Next, let’s keep our eyes on the prize – children’s overall health. While some children in the US are getting too many calories for their activity level, a significant number of children are seriously under-nourished. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans listed four nutrients of concern for adults and children: calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and dietary fiber. These nutrients are “of concern” because our low consumption can affect our health today and in the future. Here‘s how nutrients of concern relate to the flavored milk debate:

  • Just like white milk, flavored milk provides three of the nutrients of concern – all of them except dietary fiber.
  • All milks are nutrient-rich beverages. They are packed with what kids need for strong bodies – calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, as well as protein, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B12, riboflavin, and niacin.
  • Milk with school meals – unflavored and flavored – is one of the easiest, least expensive ways to close the gap on nutrients of concern.

Finally, let’s figure out how to work together for optimal school nutrition. Improving child nutrition in the US requires collaboration – among parents, dietitians, chefs, and school nutrition professionals. Right now, school nutrition programs are focused on meeting the new standards mandated by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Honestly, the challenge is not serving healthier foods (more veggie variety, more fruit, more whole grains) – it is insuring that all this nutrition gets into kids not into trashcans.

Banning flavored milk might have the potential for a tiny reduction in calories. However, several national and local studies have confirmed that it is also likely to reduce overall milk consumption. Is this really a smart strategy? Do we want more milk – with all that calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and other nutrients – going into trashcans instead of undernourished kids?

No one – not even the dairy industry – is suggesting that we should push flavored milk at kids. Let’s have fat-free flavored milk as one option in the school cafeteria. Let’s not throw important nutrients out with misplaced concerns about small amounts of sugar.

Let’s put our passion for child nutrition toward effective collaborations improving access to delicious nutrient-rich, more-locally sourced foods at school and at home. Let’s get together on School Gardens, local Farm-to-School projects, and helping kids build “Best Bones Forever.”

6 thoughts on “Flavored Milk Update: Let’s focus on what’s important in school nutrition

  1. 40 calories a day, times 180 days of school = 7200 calories – roughly enough to add 2 pounds to a child’s body. Do the math over 13 – 14 years of school. It’s just unnecessary !! Plus it is training their taste buds to expect sweet flavors all the time- they want everything to be sweet!!

    • Sorry, as a parent and a school child nutrition worker, I believe this is incorrect. Now that we are no longer serving chocolate milk, kids don’t even go to the milk cooler any longer, and if they do, most of the milk is going down the drain. Chocolate milk has all of the important nutrients of non-flavored milk, things kids need. If they don’t drink any milk they are getting ZERO! If parents do not want their children to drink chocolate milk they have that option. I’d like to give the rest of the parents the same option. Chocolate milk, or no milk. Now you do the math.

  2. Dayle, you absolutely rock! Your passion for children and preserving a wide range of healthy food choices comes through loud and clear…

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