Flavored Milk: Superfood or Soda in Drag?

Flavored milk has come under scrutiny as more people, including school food activist and chef Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution, have implicated it in the childhood obesity debate. (UPDATE: In fact, thanks to Oliver’s work, flavored milk is no longer a choice as of July 1 in LA schools.) Yet many in the mainstream health and nutrition media maintain that it is a weight loss and muscle building “super food.”

Take for example, this article by Men’s Health editor-in-chief titled, “The Chocolate Milk Diet,” which recently made the rounds on my Facebook feed. He writes, “If your teacher gave you chocolate milk as a lunchtime treat, she was (unknowingly) giving you one of the most powerful weight-loss tools in the nutritional universe.”

While foods that offer a combination of fiber, fat, and protein can help satiate with fewer calories, no food inherently produces weight loss. And yet despite the dairy industry’s fervent claim that three servings of dairy a day can aid in weight loss, the scientific evidence is scarce at best [PDF], as evidenced by this meta-analysis published in Nutrition Reviews in 2008.

Most perplexing however, is how a beverage made with added sugar (which are empty calories, providing absolutely no nutrition) can somehow be touted as a powerful weight-loss tool. Three eight-ounce servings of chocolate milk–an amount that meets the suggested amount of daily dairy servings–contribute 36 grams of added sugar. That’s four grams shy of a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola,and as much added sugar as 12 Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon cake Munchkins (donut holes). Plain and simple, you’re looking at 144 empty calories.  The fact that schools serve non-fat chocolate milk is irrelevant; we are increasingly seeing a higher amount of scientific research linking high added sugar intake with increased heart disease risk.

It isn’t simply pop-health magazines promoting chocolate milk, many accredited health professionals have gone on record declaring their love for it as well.  In an article titled “Nutrition Experts Applaud Chocolate Milk As A Good-For-You Treat,” Registered Dietitian Liz Weiss describes chocolate milk as “a nutrient-packed form of chocolate that always seems to satisfy. Plus, chocolate milk is such a better alternative than sugar-filled sodas and fruit drinks that contain little or no nutrients.”

The cocoa used in commercial chocolate milk is alkalized, meaning that the high amounts of the healthful antioxidants and polyphenols naturally found in cocoa are stripped away. In order to reap the many health benefits of chocolate, it must be consumed in a minimally processed form.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, a tablespoon of sugar then goes into each eight-ounce serving of chocolate milk.  The now-familiar argument that chocolate milk is a better alternative to sugar-filled sodas is quite weak, considering that sugar-filled sodas are nutritionally void.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a beverage that is a worse alternative to soda.

Weiss goes on to say, “Flavored milks provide the same nine essential nutrients and benefits as unflavored milks; the main difference is the added sugar, but the amount is significantly less than what you’d find in soft drinks–and if it helps kids get their milk, that’s a good thing.”
The nine essential nutrients she refers to are: Calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin B-12, riboflavin, niacin and phosphorus.  All of these nutrients are found in other foods, yet, much of the fervent chocolate milk propaganda makes it seem as if chocolate milk is the only way children can incorporate them into their diet.

Dairy enthusiasts, including [PDF] the United States Department of Agriculture often make the claim that dairy foods offer the most reliably absorbable calcium.  Alas, that mantra is absolutely false. A 1990 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the calcium in kale is more absorbable than from milk. And, this 1994 study also published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that broccoli, brussels sprouts, and mustard greens offer a higher percentage of absorbable calcium than milk. Besides, the focus on calcium is myopic, as there are many other nutrients–many of which are not found in milk–that are crucial for bone health and development.

The best thing chocolate milk has going for it is a multi-million dollar marketing campaign and relentless lobbying power. The Milk Processors Education Board–behind the 18-year-old “Got Milk?” advertisements as well as “Body By Milk” and “Refuel with Chocolate Milk”–has spent roughly $70 million each year just for advertisements.

Nutritionally misleading and inaccurate statements aside (“without milk in your diet, it’s difficult to get the recommended amounts of nutrients you need”), all the campaigns hinge on body image, with mentions of “looking your best” and “maintaining a healthy weight” peddled by airbrushed celebrities who often times display taut arms and chiseled abs. These advertisements–and hyped-up journalism like the one mentioned at the beginning of this article–simply propagate the longstanding “milk is nature’s perfect beverage” myth, which has a lot more to do with sleek public relations and very little to do with nutrition science.

Often times, these debates turn into a “vegan” vs. “omnivore” battle, which distracts from the core issue.  This goes beyond the question of whether it is ethically “right” or “wrong” to drink a beverage that is an animal byproduct.  Rather, it has to do with the fact that misleading and incorrect nutritional information is presented as objective fact.  As a soon-to-be Registered Dietitian, I am fed up with self-proclaimed experts who ultimately confuse the general public with erroneous nutrition claims that read like industry propaganda. Perhaps even more troubling, I am flabbergasted at the many individuals with the “right credentials” who continue to parrot the Dairy Council’s so-called facts, despite the scientific evidence that disproves them.

While dairy milk is not an essential beverage, it can have a place in a healthy diet.  That said, flavored milk is–as school lunch activist Ann Cooper puts it–”soda in drag” and should not be served daily to children at school or touted as a superfood to everyone else.

11 thoughts on “Flavored Milk: Superfood or Soda in Drag?

  1. Speaking of inaccurate statements, while it may be possible to find a brand of chocolate milk which has 12 g added sugar per 8 oz., the brand of chocolate milk which Jamie Oliver railed against in the LAUSD schools contains just 6 g added sugar per 8 oz; even drinking three 8 oz servings a day of this milk would still yield only a small fraction of the added sugar found in just one soda.

  2. Interesting Dana, you appear by your hyperlink to consider yourself a healthy school food advocate, yet you are indirectly defending a beverage served at school that contributes to an increase in early onset Type II Diabetes and fatty liver? Wow.

  3. Dana,

    There are some variations with different brands and producers, but if you look at data that encapsulates the grams of sugar in the average 8-ounce cup of chocolate milk, you will come across 24 grams (which is 12 grams more than the same amount of unflavored milk).

    While 24 grams may be less than what is in a 12 ounce can of soda, this document from the American Heart Association (http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/120/11/1011) recommends that children ages 4 to 8 consume no more than 12 grams of added sugar in a single day.

  4. I am neither for nor against chocolate milk; I am, however, for honesty in discussions related to school food. I am critical of the dairy industry for some of their unsupported claims about milk, but likewise I am critical of those who apparently feel that it is okay to make unsupported claims about chocolate milk.

    Soda and chocolate milk are in no way similar when it comes to added sugar (which I think we all agree is the type of sugar under discussion, not the sugar which occurs naturally in milk, accounting for more than half of the g of total sugar in most chocolate milk.)

    The typical nonfat plain milk served in schools has 14 g sugar, not 12; this is because dairies add additional nonfat milk solids to skim milk to give it a more palatable “mouth feel” – which is to say, it is more appealing, and customers, including kids, are more likely to drink it, if the milk feels richer in the mouth than would be the case without the added milk solids. Skim milk without added milk solids also has a kind of bluish color which is not appealing. I think it is splitting hairs to count those two grams in the additional milk solids as “added sugar”.

    The chocolate milk served in LAUSD (and increasingly in the fall you will see it in other schools too) has just the additional 6 grams of added sugar, which bring the total g to 20 in 8 oz. Those 6g equate to .75g per ounce. Coke, on the other hand, has 3.25g added sugar per ounce, more than 4 times as much as the LAUSD chocolate milk.

    Really, is it honest to say that soda, with 4 times the added sugar of chocolate milk, is the same as chocolate milk? The fact that the dairy industry may be stretching the truth does not make it okay for the other side to do likewise. School food advocates should not lower themselves to using the worst tricks of Big Food.

    As for the claim that chocolate milk contributes to type II diabetes and fatty liver, do you have a link to a study which proves that specifically? Not that added sugar causes those things, but that chocolate milk alone does. I have seen numerous studies about the ill effects of soda consumption, but have not yet seen a study which focused on chocolate milk specifically, so if one exists I would be interested to see it.

  5. Try this solution to the Chocolate Milk Dilemma: MojoMilk (www.mojomilk.com) is an all-natural chocolate milk mix that contains 60% less calories than leading brands and also delvers 10x more active probiotics than yogurt. Now we can finally have a delicious AND healthy chocolate milk!

  6. A thought occurred to me while reading this piece. What if we are fighting the wrong fight when it comes to allowing flavored milk in schools? (As a disclaimer, I am TOTALLY against flavored milk) Instead of insisting that flavored milk be removed from schools, we could insist that milk with ADDED SUGAR be removed from schools. This completely diffuses the dairy industry’s argument that kids would be missing out on all those nutrients that “milk” provides. Now, it might taste like crap, but atleast if kids still chose to buy a milk, they wouldn’t be getting all that sugar. Then, maybe when the dust is settled on that issue, we could focus on gettting flavored milk out altogether.

  7. the problem with flavouring and sugar is not only the nutritional value or how bad it is to your teeth.

    It also has something to do with the choice between learning to enjoy simple tastes without added sweetener. It it quite easy to get yourself used to added sugar and salt, in everything you eat and drink. It is also not at all difficult to never get addicted to unnecessarily large quantities of sugar and salt. Why not help children to develop a taste for things that are healthy, in stead of messing up their taste buds?

  8. Nichol – I agree, and I think there are plenty of good arguments to be made for not having chocolate milk available in schools – honest arguments based on facts, not hyperbole. It is misleading and downright dishonest to claim that chocolate milk is just like soda when it is nothing like soda. Sure does get attention for the person who makes the claim, though.

  9. Dana has brought up an excellent point, Andy. I’m against flavored milk in schools like you, but the argument that chocolate milk is just like soda has enough holes in it that it’s easy for the milk industry to discredit your argument. That doesn’t help the cause for removal.

    Nichol, I agree wholeheartedly with the argument you added against flavored milk. When I was a kid, everyone, and I mean everyone, in school drank whole, unflavored milk. That’s all that was offered and everyone enjoyed it. Why did that need to change? I still love milk but I’m certainly no fan of the Dairy Council.

  10. Flavored milk may not be “soda in drag,” but nor is it the superfood the dairy industry claims. In schools, in particular, we need to get away from the milk-at-all-costs mentality that has made too many people put on blinders when in comes to what we’re feeding our kids.

    I go into more detail on that here: http://spoonfedblog.net/2011/06/01/orthorexia-vs-chocolate-milk-will-the-real-eating-disorder-please-stand-up/

    Nichol and Kim: Among other things, my piece addresses that sugar conditioning and the demise of whole milk/rise of unpalatable milk in schools.

  11. My brother Thomas drank two gallons of milk for the most part of his adult life. At age 52 he suffered a severe stroke that put him into a coma. after a month in that condition he died. When he died he weighed 352 pounds and looked like a bloated blob of human fat. Tom was active, did not smoke, and led an otherwise healthy life.
    I am now 46, and have excluded milk and milk by-products from my diet since adulthood (age 20). I am 6′-2″ tall and weigh 215 pounds. I look and feel younger than most men my age. I have all my teeth, all my hair and have never broken one bone in my body, despite being an active skateboarder until age 37.