New Study Argues Against Ban on Chocolate Milk in School Cafeterias

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 21, 2014

chocolatemilkResearchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have released a new study regarding school chocolate milk that’s getting some press.

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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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacy @School-Bites.com April 21, 2014 at 10:05 am

Great write up, and thanks so much for linking to my post! I know a lot of people feel the same way about chocolate milk–that there are bigger fish to fry. But I’d hate to see the efforts of parent advocates be undermined by this (in my opinion) flawed study. If removing chocolate and other flavored milks is an issue that they want to take on–if it feels important to them that their children not be offered sugary milk once or twice a day–then I want to support those efforts. No easy answers–and I imagine that the debate will continue to wage on.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 10:17 am

Stacy: I though your analysis was great and exposed flaws that unfortunately aren’t getting picked up in press reports about the study. And you can tell, I think, from my post that this is an issue about which I feel somewhat conflicted. I’m certainly aware of the growing body of evidence regarding the detrimental effects of added sugars and sugary beverages in our diets, but I also stand by many of the points raised in my 2011 post (which I hope people will read – I didn’t want to make this post super-long by recapping it in detail here.)

I’d be curious to know what you and others feel about TruMoo’s nutritional profile and if you think that’s a reasonable compromise, or if you fear that any sweetened beverage is a per se bad idea, regardless of its overall nutritional content? One factor that’s important to me is that TruMoo milk is only offered once a day. I’d feel differently, I think, if kids were drinking flavored milk at both breakfast and lunch.

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Stacy @School-Bites.com April 21, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Bettina, I think a lower sugar version of TruMoo would be a step in the right direction. But even if it was only offered at one meal, kids could still drink it every day, which seems excessive. How about just once or twice a week instead? I think veggies (and possibly fruits, too) are going to be a much tougher sell if kids are drinking chocolate milk. The TruMoo that I’ve seen has artificial flavors…not a fan of those. Overall, I do believe we need to start moving away from sugary drinks of any sort. I like to believe that kids would ultimately adjust, especially if it was done in conjunction with education.

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Suzanne Schlosberg April 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Stacy makes a great point here: When you’re used to everything being sweet, veggies just don’t taste good. My husband (who grew up on junk food and struggles with his weight) has this very problem. Nothing is sweet enough for him. Our food supply — with all the chocolate milk, yogurt tubes, and sugary cereals — has such high sweet baseline that kids’ expectations are altered. If we have to have chocolate milk in schools, I agree that once a week is a better way to go. My kids report that almost all of the students in their classes who get “hot lunch” choose chocolate milk, which is offered every day. It’s a lot to expect of 5- and 6-year-olds to forego the chocolate milk.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Stacy: I called TruMoo this morning just to double check my facts and confirmed that the version offered in Houston has no artificial flavors. I wonder if that’s not the case everywhere? But I take your larger point. One elementary school here in my district instituted a policy that only Fridays are chocolate milk days, but I don’t know if the policy is still in effect. I believe that there was pressure from Food Services (under different leadership) to end that policy, possibly because it was affecting meal participation. This is another question I’ll ask (see my response to Suzanne) at our meeting with Food Services this week.

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Stacy @School-Bites.com April 21, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Next time I’m in my kids’ school lunchroom, I’ll check the TruMoo again. I like the once-a-week policy. A year ago, our food service director told us that they make money by selling chocolate milk, and the USDA wants them to sell it. I didn’t question him on it as it wasn’t on my personal agenda at the time. But I know a lot of other parents in our district are interested in eliminating or at least scaling back on it.

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Brittany April 21, 2014 at 10:50 am

Ugh why is it so hard to expect kids to drink WATER with lunch?! They don’t need milk or apple juice or capri sun or gatorade. Cold water with ice is all they should be offered. Period.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 10:53 am

Brittany: I would LOVE to see water more available at lunch, and it’s now mandated by federal law that it be provided free of charge. However, as I’ve written about here several times in the past, the devil is in the details: http://www.thelunchtray.com/getting-drinking-water-into-school-cafeterias-not-as-easy-as-it-sounds/. Thanks for your comment here.

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Sally Kuzemchak April 21, 2014 at 11:14 am

I agree with your position on this issue, Bettina (though I really enjoyed Stacy’s post and thought her analysis of the study’s details and potential conflicts were terrific). There are so many things I’d love to see tackled when it comes to school lunch, especially in my children’s district, like the lack of kitchen space to prepare fresh foods, the lack of variety of fruits and vegetables, and the seemingly endless breaded chicken in various forms. In my opinion, chocolate milk can have a place at school lunch. I would love to see all the passion and emotion spent on flavored milk directed toward getting our kids fresh food every day instead.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 11:35 am

Sally: Your comment makes me breath a little sigh of relief because I always feel like a bit of an outlier in our online community when it comes to the chocolate milk issue. Given your credentials as an RD, I appreciate and respect your input!

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 12:12 pm

And, btw, I’m not a total fan of TruMoo – while I appreciate that they don’t use HFCS and only use natural flavors (both rare for a lot of flavored milks), they do use carrageenan which may be a cause for concern.

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Casey April 21, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Of all the sources of school sugar overload, this has been one of the easiest ones for me to avoid by packing lunch. I realize some parents depend on school lunches so it needs to be addressed based on what’s in the best long term interest of children. If flavored milk is eliminated but juice is still an option, I can see children choosing that instead, which is a step back for their health. It didn’t seem like the study looked at the impact on juice consumption which is an important consideration.

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Clancy Harrison April 21, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Thank you for your post. I try not to make a big deal about flavored milk with my children. If they drink it, they drink it. We do not buy it all of the time and if they get it in school, I am fine with it. There are bigger issues to fry with sugar. Sometimes I think my daughter just wants something of a pink color and not the sweet taste. I often mix in a little beet juice powder in her milk to give her the pink color she is looking for in some food or beverage products.

As a President of a very large Food Pantry (Al Beech West Side Food Pantry in Kingston, Pa), I know to well that 1 in 5 children do not know where their next meal is coming from meaning they are food insecure. Milk is not the biggest issue in 20% of our school population.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Clancy: This is a very good point. Food insecurity is a real issue in many districts, including mine where over 80% of students qualify for free/reduced price lunch. Thanks for commenting here.

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Suzanne Schlosberg April 21, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I’m confused. You wrote: “— 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.” But how does “almost one year” prove anything? And that short a period can hardly “disprove” the notion that kids will drink plain milk if they have no choice! Only one school in our district has banned chocolate milk, and they are doing just fine with plain milk. My household has banned chocolate milk, too, and my kids do not whine about it! American kids didn’t get hooked on liquid candy overnight, and they’re not going to be weaned off their addiction in less than a year. I agree that there are tons of other pressing sugar-related issues, but that doesn’t diminish this one. To me, the larger issue is that kids are being taught— by the schools, no less! — that nothing tastes good unless it’s sweet. I had always admired Wansink’s work. This flawed study is hugely disappointing, and I’m not surprised people are using it as “proof.” Why is everyone assuming it’s a bad outcome if kids are drinking 10% less milk than before? Is there even any evidence that is detrimental? Are we having a calcium/protein crisis in this country or an obesity/sugar crisis? At snack time at my 6-year-old twins’ basketball practice they were served not one, not two, not three but FOUR sugary treats — this, after they sat on the bench for half of the 20-minute game! I don’t think schools need to compound these cultural problems by serving chocolate milk.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Suzanne: Right after I posted this morning I realized I had contrasted Stacy’s comment about letting the experiment run for more than a year with an example that was “just under a year.” Doh! A consequence of rushing to get the post up before it was too late in the day. But I’ll be seeing our Food Services department in two days at our regular monthly meeting and will ask then to see where things stand. I’ll update everyone here.

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Ilse April 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Milk is a food, not a beverage, and when it is loaded with sugar it is a dessert. I’m a proponent of offering only water.

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Jill Castle April 21, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I have also written several posts on chocolate milk and have had the opportunity to help a private school manage their offerings. Nearly every post on this topic focuses on WHAT (chocolate and sugar, whether it’s needed in the diet, nutrients, etc). I propose we shift our focus to HOW and WHY it’s offered. For example, right now, chocolate milk is either not offered, or offered every day. Why not offer it once or twice a week? HOW it appears–its frequency, where it is placed, etc–can temper the issue on all fronts.
WHY it’s offered is also useful. Chocolate milk isn’t offered to create sugar addiction, or a permanent hold on the marketplace of future generations (that would be inappropriate and unfortunate in my opinion). It’s offered so that children will receive a nutrient-dense liquid that is tasty, so they are likely to drink it. There really aren’t any other liquids that fit this bill.
A more global perspective on this topic, rather than a “yes or no” approach to chocolate milk may help us all feel better about it.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 4:50 pm

I love this perspective, Jill! Thanks for coming by and now I’m going to look for your posts on this topic as well. :-)

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Jill Castle April 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm
Susan April 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm

As someone who is allergic to some component (probably not lactose) in milk, cream, some cheeses, yogurt, etc. (Is it possible to develop an intolerance to milkfat?), I applaud the idea that water is now offered. When I was in school, I had to have a letter on file to be allowed not to take (and waste) a milk. At the time, I was only allowed a half carton of juice to replace it, not water. After becoming a teacher, I was thrilled to see water bottles in the coolers in the cafeteria!

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Hanna Saltzman April 23, 2014 at 11:13 am

Thanks for this post, Bettina – it’s made me think more critically about this issue. I generally oppose all sugary drinks in schools, including chocolate milk, but hadn’t thought before about the different pros/cons you point out – it’s definitely more nuanced than I had realized. It’s tough, because ideally kids’ palates (and hormonal & neurological feedback systems) wouldn’t be overexposed to sugar and thus desensitized to sweetness in the first place. Then, I think plain milk would taste sweet enough… but given that we’re very far from that environment, the chocolate vs. plain milk debate seems a bit like choosing between a rock and a hard place. And you’re right that while diary in schools has, in large part, been pushed by the dairy industry, it nonetheless provides a valuable source of nutrients & calcium. If choosing between no milk and chocolate milk, I’m still on the side of no milk…. but obviously that holds risks as well.

A few children I know who have milked cows, either on farms or at state fairs, have ended up liking milk more after that experience! Not a viable large-scale solution, but interesting!

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hi April 26, 2014 at 3:21 am

I never liked milk and would not drink non-chocolate milk. It is true that removing chocolate milk would mean that I would not drink the milk. However, I would gladly drink plain water or mineral water with bubbles with no sweetener in it.

I do not see a big deal about dropping milk consumption. Is it really that necessary to trick kids into drinking so much of it?

By the same logic, we should cover all fruit salads by whipping cream with a lot of sugar and chocolate on top. Kids would eat more salads if they would come with cream + chocolate and consumption would fall if we after removing those things.

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Dorothy Handelman May 12, 2014 at 8:48 am

I’m happy to discover your blog via the NYTimes. I am the mom of three and discovered that my son would drink milk more readily in the form of cocoa in the morning made from scratch or when he could add chocolate milk powder as part of his snack after school. My daughters enjoyed the taste of milk without any flavorings- but when your concern is for their nutrition (even with the added sugar) you learn to pick your battles. Maybe I’ve been lucky as my three are all lean and athletic. I am happy to see school lunches improve over the years in their nutritional content and know this is an important step for our kids future health and development. But chocolate milk seems like the least of the large concerns- and yes water is always a great beverage alternative with any meal.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 12, 2014 at 8:31 pm

Dorothy: I’m glad you found this blog through the Times and welcome you here!

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