Chocolate milk – too much sugar, or health drink of the future

Chocolate milk has come under scrutiny as of late due to concerns about sugar intake by our kids, but there’s more at stake than just reducing sugar when we start pulling it out of children’s diets.

With a few major schools pulling chocolate milk off the menu due to sugar concerns, many parents, nutritionists and industry professionals are asking questions about what effect this has on nutrition in our children.

Recent research has validated the concerns of nutritionist. Studies have shown a direct correlation between chocolate milk consumption and total milk consumption in children. That is, if children drink less chocolate milk, they drink less milk in total. In the study this resulted in a decrease in milk consumption by 35% when chocolate milk is removed from schools. That also means a decrease in calcium and Vitamin D intake that children need. In other words, the answer to obesity may not be as easy as pulling chocolate milk out of the diet.

So are we wrong to want to reduce sugar intake? Certainly not if it is too high, and it is too high in many children’s’ diets. But let’s look at foods that have added sugars and are not as healthy as milk for our children. Sugary and starchy snacks with little nutritional value should be the first to go. The American Heart Association, in a 2009 publication, stated “In fact, when sugars are added to otherwise nutrient-rich foods, such as sugar-sweetened dairy products like flavored milk and yogurt and sugar-sweetened cereals, the quality of children's and adolescents' diets improves, and in the case of flavored milks, no adverse effects on weight status were found." This doesn’t completely leave the dairy industry off the hook though, and currently dairy industry professionals are looking at ways of reducing added sugar in flavored milk while maintaining taste and acceptance and therefore, maintain intake of this nutrient rich food.

Other research has been published that shows that chocolate milk tops most other post workout sports recovery drinks. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, concluded that low fat chocolate milk may be as effective or superior to commercial sports beverages in promoting post-workout recovery. This and other recent research has propelled some schools to put chocolate milk in workout rooms and other post workout locations to help their athletes. Many drinks don’t provide much besides calories. But chocolate milk provides minerals and vitamins along with protein. In fact, the United Dairy Industry of Michigan is working with Michigan schools to make this possible.

How does this mesh with watching sugar content? Well actually the answer is quite simple. We all need carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients to function, and grow in the case of our kids. We also need to balance the intake of these nutrients with our activity level. One of the key issues in the obesity epidemic is the lack of physical activity in our kids, both at home and at school. If we only attack the issue from the nutrition side we have missed half the solution. If we do live an active lifestyle we can and should, in moderation, eat and drink the healthy foods that we enjoy (like chocolate milk). Of course one of the problems is moderation doesn’t sell many health books, and physical activity does require a little effort. 

A podcast version of this article is available at Dairy Moosings.

Authors note: Just finished a two mile walk after lunch, picked up a low fat chocolate milk on the way, feeling great.

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