The Slow Cook on  Flavored Milk

The Slow Cook On Flavored Milk

Tue 03 May 2011

Story by Ed Bruske

Big Dairy Puts Big Scare Into Parents Over Chocolate Milk–But for How Long?

Los Angeles schools are prepared to announce they will no longer serve flavored milk beginning in the fall. Superintendent John Deasy says he will make that recommendation to the L.A. school board in July. Could this surprise development in the nation’s second-largest school district spell the end of chocolate milk as we know it?

Faced with a cultural shift away from milk in favor of drinking sodas, the U.S. dairy industry has pulled out all the stops to scare parents and school food service directors into believing that kids will collapse in a heap of rickets and osteoporosis unless they have access to milk tarted up with sugar.

The dairy industry would like you to think this fight is about nutrition, but it’s really about money. Since the end of World War II, annual milk consumption in the U.S. has plummeted from 45 gallons per person to around 20 gallons today, with milk losing market share to all kinds of sodas, juices and sports drinks sweetened with cheap high-fructose corn syrup. The one bright spot on this dreary trend line is flavored milk: Since 1975, sales of chocolate and other milk products with added sugar have tripled.

With so much on the line, the dairy industry has funded research to bolster its claims that adding sugar to milk encourages kids to drink more of it, with no harmful effects. Through this lens, chocolate milk emerges as the healthy alternative to Coke.

Biased though it may be, industry-funded research, with its gloss of scientific authority, makes its way into widely circulated professional journals. Dairy groups reference these to convince food service directors, pediatricians and parents that kids must have flavored milk. The result is a kind of public relations echo chamber in which dairy industry messages based on “research” it pays for are parroted by proxies in the health and education communities who also have financial ties to dairy.

To further whip up public hysteria, dairy interests paid an industry marketing firm to come up with a “study” allegedly showing that kids stopped drinking milk when flavored milk was taken away. Dairy interests then had the study advertised to school food service directors through the School Nutrition Association, where dairy groups pay dues as “patrons” and sit on an “industry advisory board.”

Jamie Oliver, while filming his second season of the Food Revolution television series, ran into the same buzz saw in Los Angeles. There, a special break-out session on the need to retain flavored milk—led by a dairy industry representative—was held at a conclave of the California School Nutrition Association. Jamie was filmed attending the session and making his objections known.

In the face of such concerted and well-funded efforts by the dairy industry, opponents of flavored milk would seem to be hopelessly outgunned. In fact, you might say this fight is rigged in the dairy industry’s favor. Yet no less an authority than Walter Willett, head of the nutrition department at Harvard University, says milk containing added sugar should not be offered to children in school, and that milk itself “is not an essential nutrient.”

The prestigious Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently knocked some of the stuffing out of the milk industry’s claim that children face a “calcium crisis.” In the most authoritative scientific statement to date, an IOM panel of experts said most Americans get all the calcium and Vitamin D they need.

And now a growing number of medical researchers believe that the fructose in ordinary sugar as well as high-fructose corn syrup is a triggering mechanism for obesity and related chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease. A breakthrough article on the subject in the New York Times Magazine asks: “Is Sugar Poison?”

The simple fact is, kids are eating too much sugar—research shows female adolescents get 20 percent of their total energy in the form of added sugars, and for children aged 6-11, the figure is an astonishing 19 percent.

I sympathize with parents who are perplexed and worried about kids getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. But we can’t play Russian roulette with our children’s health. All of us need to change the way we eat and stop teaching kids to expect sugar with their food every day, especially in the one-size-fits-all meal program at school.

As much as the dairy industry would like us to believe otherwise, flavored milk is not a solution. It’s part of the problem. But in one respect I agree with the industry message: We need to get children off soda. We need to teach them to like plain milk again–as well as other fresh, wholesome foods that deliver the nutrients they need.

Here’s one great way to get Vitamin D and build strong bones: go outside and exercise.

Read Ed’s full blog post here.

About the author: Ed Bruske is a food writer, chef and gardener living in the District of Columbia


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