Keep chocolate milk, set standards for added sugar

Chocolate milk is once again at risk in our country’s schools.

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

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

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

How did she end up at the center of the childhood obesity debate?

It’s the most popular milk choice in schools, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. And, as many parents will attest, many children don’t drink milk unless it’s flavored.

We also know that childhood obesity is a growing problem. Over the past 25 years or so, the rate of obesity among young people has increased by 49%. In Nevada, 18% of children between the ages of 10 and 17 were obese, according to data published a few 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 can contain more than half the amount of sugar children should consume daily.

When my daughter was in elementary school, we had a long conversation about chocolate milk after discovering two cartons of sweets in her backpack. I put water and milk (sometimes chocolate milk) in the lunches I made for her, but apparently there was also a source of free chocolate milk in the school cafeteria. I told her that chocolate milk should be an occasional treat, not something to consume every day.

The government has been dithering on the chocolate milk issue for more than a decade. In 2012, under the Obama administration, stricter requirements for federally subsidized school lunches included a rule that flavored milk must be fat-free. Six years later, the Trump administration relaxed the regulations to include low-fat flavored milk.

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

Part of the debate centers on the limited research that has been done on the impact of removing chocolate milk from school cafeterias.

A 2015 study supporting chocolate milk in schools said it is better for children to drink flavored milk than no milk.

Medical colleagues took the study authors to task, two of whom said they received support from the dairy and chocolate industries. Yet the researchers argued that no one had shown that reducing flavored milk consumption would reduce childhood obesity.

In 2020, acknowledging the lack 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 meals or At a reduced price.

The study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was conducted among 24 schools in California. It found that although the proportion of students choosing milk fell by 13%, children were still getting enough calcium, protein and vitamin D in their diets. During this time, their intake of added sugars dropped significantly.

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

Currently, there are no limits on added sugar in school lunch programs. The USDA should set standards for added sugars in school lunches as a whole, as well as for any individual packaged or processed foods served in schools.

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

And parents, as always, should make the choices that are best for their family.

Nedra Rhone is a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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