The study looked at milk consumption in 11 Oregon elementary school cafeterias in which chocolate milk had been banned. After the ban, total daily milk sales declined by almost 10%, white milk sales increased by around 160 cartons per day but almost 30% of that white milk was thrown away, and overall school meal participation dropped by about 7%.
The Cornell Food and Brand Lab is led by Dr. Brian Wansink, whom I’ve referred to here as a “master of lunchroom trickery:” Wansink is the leading expert on how subtle changes to the physical layout of cafeterias can induce people to make healthier choices without being aware of the manipulation. But as my 2011 TLT interview with him made clear, he’s not a proponent of removing less healthy options altogether.
So, not surprisingly, the research team in the Cornell study concluded that rather than banning chocolate milk outright, food service directors should consider the following techniques, all of which may boost white milk consumption:
(1) keeping all beverage coolers stocked with at least some white milk; 2) white milk representing 1/3 or more of all visible milk in the lunchroom; 3) placing white milk in front of other beverages, including chocolate milk, in all coolers; 4) placing white milk crates so that they are the first beverage option seen in all milk coolers; and 5) bundling white milk with all grab and go meals available to students as the default beverage.
Stacy Whitman of School Bites had an excellent post last Friday examining the study in detail, questioning the interpretation of some of its findings and raising some reasonable questions about possible researcher bias. She noted:
While I certainly don’t mean to suggest any impropriety, it’s interesting to note that Wansink served as executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion around the time that MilkPEP started a $500,000 to $1M Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign to increase chocolate milk consumption in schools.
But regardless of the merits and interpretation of this particular study, it doesn’t surprise me that overall milk consumption may have dropped when chocolate milk was removed from the cafeteria. Back in 2011, I wrote an epically long and somewhat controversial post on chocolate milk in schools and noted there that:
A recent study which looked at 58 elementary and secondary schools found that on days when only white milk was offered in cafeterias, milk consumption dropped an average of 35 percent. Yes, yes, I know that study was funded by the dairy industry, and maybe it’s all bunk. But on a purely anecdotal basis, I have never heard of any school district that did not see a significant, lasting drop in milk consumption when flavored milk was discontinued.
Stacy asked in her School Bites post whether the study findings might have been different if the Cornell study lasted longer than a year:
What would happen if they gave it more time? Would more kids start choosing and drinking white milk as it gradually became the norm?
But as I noted in that same 2011 TLT post, this hadn’t proven true in Houston ISD as of the last time I discussed this issue with our Food Services department. Our district’s breakfast program only offers white milk and
. . . HISD indicated that — almost one year after the breakfast program was fully rolled out — kids still don’t want the white milk, disproving the notion that children inured to flavored milk will eventually drink plain if they have no choice.
So, all of this said, where do I come out on chocolate milk in schools?
The main point of my 2011 post was to question why Jamie Oliver (whose “Food Revolution” show was then on television) was focusing so intensely on banning chocolate milk in American schools at a time when there were, in my opinion, far more pressing school food issues which would have benefitted from his celebrity and clout.
And even now, three years later, there are so many other sources of sugar in kids’ diets I’d rather address first, such as the ubiquitous but completely “empty-calorie” sports drinks and sodas many kids consume on a regular basis. Because while I agree with many experts that dairy is not a necessary part of anyone’s diet (despite relentless dairy industry propaganda to the contrary), the fact remains that dairy, unlike soda and sports drinks, provides children with protein, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin D and phosphorous. It’s also more readily consumed by most kids than other foods providing some of those nutrients, such as calcium-rich sardines, canned salmon with bones or dark green, leafy vegetables.
It’s also worth noting that not all chocolate milk is created equal. Here in Houston ISD, for example, our cafeterias have been offering for years a flavored milk called TruMoo which has 18 grams of sugar per serving. That might sound high, but 12 of those sugar grams are from the lactose that’s in white milk as well. So for 1.5 teaspoons of added sugar, kids are consuming an otherwise healthful beverage. Contrast this with traditional flavored milk, such Horizon, which has almost 6 teaspoons of sugar — four times as much! — per serving.
That strikes me as a reasonable nutritional compromise, but if the almost 70 comments that came in on my 2011 post are any indication, passions about flavored milk run high! Let me know in a comment below your thoughts on the Wansink study and/or flavored milk in schools generally.
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