Does chocolate milk belong on school menus?

Consumer Reports News: September 21, 2011 03:53 PM

At a time of growing concern about childhood obesity, some school districts—like Los Angeles—have removed flavored milks from the school lunch menu.

To many experts, however, the overall nutritional benefits of chocolate and strawberry-flavored milk outweigh the extra calories that children may be consuming.

“It’s amazing to me that people rag on flavored milk,” said Keith Ayoob, a registered dietician and pediatric nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “This is not where kids are getting excess calories.” He added that recent government data show that children get 98 percent of their sugar outside of school, and more half the sugar in their diets from home. Ayoob noted that flavored or not, milk is nutritious, giving kids needed calcium, vitamin D, and potassium.

Schools, mindful of the criticism about the added calories in flavored milk, have also made significant changes to the composition of the flavored milk, explained Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association.

“Flavored milk is an area that schools are aware of, “ said Pratt-Heavner. “They are concerned about sugar levels and are working with dairies to reduce sugar levels. They’re switching to 1 percent or fat-free flavored milk.”

This calorie-consciousness on the part of school nutritionists, who are responsible for providing healthy school lunches, also reflects awareness of some recent changes to the school lunch program from the United States Department of Agriculture. Among the changes are efforts to promote the use of reduced fat dairy products.

“Childhood obesity is a major concern for school districts,” said Pratt-Heavner. “They know they have to be part of the solution. Schools see their role as promoting better choices and bringing the calories and sugar levels down. Flavored milks are a great alternative that provide nutrients that kids are missing. Schools find that kids are more likely to drink their milk if it’s flavored milk. If you add a little sugar to make it more palatable, that’s okay.”

For their part, said Dennis Barrett, director of food services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the district has been working since 2004 “to improve and upgrade the nutritional quality in the schools. The standards that the USDA had weren’t as good as what the board of education wanted.” As part of that effort, for example, the district shuns canned fruits and vegetables, uses whole grains and whole wheat instead of just white flour, and doesn’t have candy bars or soda either in student stores or cafeterias.

He added, “What we’re trying to do is raise the awareness of healthy eating. Some things are borderline, like chocolate milk, but there’s a perception by the community that it’s not healthy. We want students in the habit of getting healthy food at school. Chocolate milk is part of that approach of changing the whole image.”

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Merri Rosenberg

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