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

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The Slow Cook

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, according to a report yesterday in the Los Angeles Times. 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.

It’s no surprise that kids love sugar and sweets of all kinds–including chocolate milk and strawberry milk and grape milk and any number of other flavors. The question is whether the dairy claims are true, and whether enticing kids to eat foods laced with added sugar is a good thing in the midst of an obesity epidemic that threatens to cut short the lives of a generation of children and send the nation’s health care bill through the roof.

Don’t be fooled. 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 sorry trend line is flavored milk: Since 1975, sales of chocolate and other milk products with added sugar have tripled.

In the federally-subsidized school meals program, milk enjoys special status. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose primary job is to promote sales of the nation’s farm products, has singled out milk as the one food that must be offered to all 32 million children who eat the government-sponsored lunch. It’s required at breakfast, too, and an estimated 70 percent of the milk kids drink at school is flavored. Many schools have eliminated sodas, but they still serve strawberry milk containing nearly as much sugar as Mountain Dew.

With so much on the line, the dairy industry has funded research to bolster its cause. For instance, in its “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!” campaign, the industry cites three research papers as supporting its contention that adding sugar to milk encourages kids to drink it, with no harmful effects. Through this lens, chocolate milk emerges as the healthy alternative to Coke.

In all three cases, those papers were either written or co-written by Rachel K. Johnson, a nutritionist who until 2008 was dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Vermont, a state with deep roots in the dairy industry. Johnson specializes in child obesity issues with “an emphasis on the nutritional role of dairy foods,” according to the university.  She continues to teach nutrition there and might as well be on the dairy payroll as well: All three of the studies in which Johnson was involved were in fact funded by dairy organizations. She lists herself as an advisor to the National Dairy Council and the International Dairy Foods Association.

Biased though it may be, industry-funded research, with its gloss of scientific authority, makes its way into widely circulated professional journals such as the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Adolescent Health. It then migrates into findings of medical groups like the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. 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 claim that if flavored milk is removed from schools, kids will stop drinking milk altogether. As proof, they site a “study” purporting that in seven different school districts milk consumption dropped an average 35 percent over a three-month period when chocolate milk was taken away. Kids drank 37 percent less milk even a year after the move to plain milk had taken place, according to these findings.

Very likely, some kids do drink less milk when sugary milk is taken off the menu. But this was no scientific study. It was written by a marketing research firm hired by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP), the industry-funded group responsible for the famous “Got Milk?” campaign. The company in question–Prime Consultant Group—is a major player in consumer analysis and sales strategies that lists among its clients Coca-Cola, PepsiCo International, Kraft Foods/Nabisco, Sara Lee and Proctor & Gamble.

MilkPEP refuses to make details of its “study” available for public scrutiny. Yet it immediately touted the new “findings” to the nation’s school food service directors through the School Nutrition Association, which represents some 53,000 cafeteria bosses.

MilkPEP is a program mandated by Congress and overseen by the USDA that collects money from milk producers and uses it to promote milk consumption. MilkPEP and the National Dairy Council are listed as “patrons” of the School Nutrition Association, meaning they pay at least $10,000 in annual dues to support SNA activities. A MilkPEP representative also sits on the SNA’s “industry advisory board,” along with representatives from corporate food giants such as Tyson, Sysco and General Mills.

In August of last year, shortly after the “study” was unveiled at the SNA’s annual conference in Dallas, the SNA hosted a “webinar” for its members titled, “Keep Flavored Milk from Dropping Out of School.” The SNA advertised the webinar this way on its website: “Learn about free resources available to use with parents, school officials, and other interested parties to help show that student nutrition and food budgets are negatively impacted when flavored milk is removed from schools.”

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.

As far as school children are concerned, one segment of the population that might need extra attention is pubescent girls. According to the IOM, girls leading up to and during puberty typically consume around 823 milligrams of calcium daily. Because they experience a growth spurt during this period, they should aim to get about 200 milligrams more calcium, or “between 1,000 and 1,100” milligrams, said Dr. Steven A. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in the calcium intake of children and was one of the panelists who wrote the IOM report.

By comparison, a one-cup serving of Total cereal contains 1,000 milligrams of calcium, a cup of low-fat milk around 300, and a half-cup of cooked collard greens 200, about the same as in a single serving of string cheese.

In an interview, Abrams–who also advises MilkPEP–told me: “I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘calcium crisis.’ I’m much more in favor of policies that ensure we meet that 1,000 milligrams. What we need to do is make sure that we have a lot of different ways for kids to get to it.”

In other words, milk isn’t the only way to get calcium. It’s available in lots of other foods. Milk is not required in the schools of most other countries. According to Oliver, flavored milk is prohibited in schools in Great Britain and the rest of Europe.

More ominously, emerging science paints a dire picture of sugar as a trigger for obesity and related health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease. A 6,000-word feature article appeared in the April 17 edition of the New York Times Magazine under the headline, “Is Sugar Toxic?”

Robert Lustig, a specialist in childhood obesity and pediatric hormone disorders at the University of California, San Francisco, is at the center of this report. Lustig, who helped write the American Heart Association’s guidelines on added sugar, is convinced that the fructose in ordinary sugar as well as in even sweeter high-fructose corn syrup is intimately connected with the obesity epidemic and so-called diseases of modern civilization because of the way it is metabolized in the liver, like alcohol.

Sugar represents not just empty calories, Lustig insists. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself.” Lustig says Americans are consuming more calories than ever because their appetite suppression mechanisms are disrupted by eating too much sugar, especially in sodas and other sweetened beverages.

Lustig worries about a worldwide outbreak of obese infants and an epidemic of fatty liver disorder in children caused by too much sugar. Research finds that female adolescents get 20 percent of their total energy in the form of added sugars, meaning sugar that does not occur naturally in food. Even for children aged 6-11, the figure is an astonishing 19 percent.

Needless to say, Lustig does not approve of chocolate milk in school. Gary Taubes, one of the nation’s foremost science writers and author of the New York Times article, is convinced sugar is dangerous even though the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive.

Some medical researchers Taube’s interviewed have eliminated sugar from their personal diets because they believe it may cause common forms of cancer.

The U.S. government has been slow to fund adequate studies of sugar in the diet, and the sugar industry has vigorously fought efforts to issue guidelines on sugar consumption. In fact, in all the volumes of rules governing the school meals program, sugar is one ingredient the USDA does not regulate at all. Cash-strapped schools use it as a cheap way to boost the calorie count in their food. The USDA’s proposed new meal guidelines were specifically written to leave room for flavored milk, even while lowering the number of calories schools can serve in meals.

I’m not waiting for “conclusive” science either. Like school officials in Los Angeles and other forward-thinking districts, I believe we have enough information to know that we as a society—and kids in particular—have gone way overboard in our taste for sugar, a food substance that wasn’t even widely available for most of human history.

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.

In at least one respect I agree with the dairy industry: 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.

As much as the dairy industry would like us to believe otherwise, flavored milk is not a solution. It’s part of the problem. If kids are to drink chocolate milk at all, it should be reserved for an occasional treat—at home with parental supervision, not in school.

Ed Bruske

Ed Bruske, a former Washington Post reporter, now tends his “urban farm” about a mile from the White House in the District of Columbia. He was a co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners and lectures on composting, kitchen gardening, food preservation, and other related topics. He sits on the advisory board of the D.C. Farm to School Network and contributes to food policy blogs such as Grist and La Vida Locavore, as well as the gardening blog Garden Rant. He is a contributing editor for the food access blog, DC Food for All.

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