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Clarifying the Chocolate Milk Controversy

Posted Nov 18 2009 10:00pm

by Marlene Schwartz

For the record - I never set out to attack chocolate milk. I am a mother, a health professional, and a fan of dairy products. I serve milk, yogurt, cheese, and even the occasional ice cream cone to my own three children. My efforts to improve the nutrition environment in schools have focused primarily on foods that offer little nutritional value and add extra calories and sugar to children’s diets.

The “chocolate milk controversy” story this week is not about nutrition; it’s about marketing. The Dairy Industry’s national marketing group, the Milk Processor Education Program, is launching a new $1 million initiative to promote chocolate milk, especially in schools. I didn’t understand why they were promoting chocolate milk instead of regular milk in schools. 

I found the answer in a presentation on their website. They explain that “more than half of all flavored milk is sold in schools,” and “the importance of flavored milk goes beyond the school market because it is a key growth area for milk processors.”

They are trying to sell their product. There is nothing wrong with that as long as their marketing efforts are not misleading. Chocolate milk is not the nutritional equivalent of regular milk. It is significantly higher in calories, sugar (often high fructose corn syrup), sodium, and usually contains artificial colors and flavors. 

In the promotional video on YouTube, expert dieticians acknowledged that chocolate milk has about 60 more calories per serving than regular milk, but then quickly added that “in the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing compared to the amount of nutrients they are going to be getting.” 

That sounded really familiar. 

“In the grand scheme of things, these calories don’t count” is exactly what we heard from David Mackay, the CEO of Kellogg in his defense of marketing his company’s high-sugar cereals: "Twelve grams of sugar is 50 calories. A presweetened cereal as part of a regular diet for kids is not a bad thing."  

50 calories here, 60 calories there, and pretty soon we are talking about real weight gain.

Our research has found that children will eat low-sugar cereals and drink white milk when these are the foods that are served. We also found that most children will also eat a piece of fruit if you prompt them to take it. School cafeterias are the perfect place to reinforce the nutrition lessons that begin at home and promote nutrient-dense foods.

If the dairy and cereal industries are intent on marketing the least healthy versions of their products to children, they should first tell parents how to go to the website and look up their child’s discretionary calories. Discretionary calories are those extra calories you have left for added sugar and fat after you have eaten all of the nutritious foods your body needs.

It depends on age, gender, and level of physical activity, but the majority of American children have a surprisingly limited number of discretionary calories to spend each day. For girls between 9 and 13 who get fewer than 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, it is only 130 calories. One serving of presweetened cereal for breakfast and one serving of chocolate milk for lunch, there go 110 of those 130 calories. Forget dessert. 

I am not an anti-chocolate milk crusader. It is fine with me if some children and their parents decide that they would rather spend their discretionary calories on chocolate milk than on plain milk plus a cookie. But I am concerned that the “pay no attention to the extra 60 calories per serving of this product” message is harmful. Food marketers should not be trying to convince people that some discretionary calories should be excused from being counted. 
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