The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a possible ban on flavored milk, including chocolate and strawberry, in elementary and middle schools. It’s one of two proposals aimed at reducing how much added sugars children are consuming at school. (The other proposal would allow both flavored and unflavored milk for all grades kindergarten through 12th.)
But is chocolate milk actually bad for kids? Here’s what pediatric nutritionists have to say about the flavored drink.
What are the concerns with chocolate milk?
Like any sweetened beverage, consuming higher amounts of chocolate milk over time might contribute to obesity as well as other health concerns, such as an increased risk for diabetes, Beth Conlon, dietitian and founder of From the Start Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life. Consuming too many sugar sweetened drinks can also lead to tooth decay.
The American Heart Association recommends that children ages 2 to 18 limit their added sugar intake to less than 25 grams per day, and drink no more than 8 ounces of sugary beverages per week. While about 12 grams of sugar in a cup of chocolate milk comes from naturally occurring lactose, the other 10 to 13 grams are from added sugar.
Taking chocolate milk off the school menu can help reduce overall sugar intake in children, but likely at the cost of children having less milk, which contains protein and calcium, as one study of 11 Oregon elementary schools found.
However, another study that looked at a year-long ban on chocolate milk in middle and high schools showed a significant decrease in students’ added sugar consumption, yet only a slight decline in milk intake — less than 1 ounce per student. The success of this ban is largely attributed to clearly explaining the change to students before it took place.
What are the benefits of keeping chocolate milk in schools?
The USDA dietary guidelines state that children do not get enough calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium or fiber. “Milk, flavored and unflavored, delivers four out of five of these nutrients,” Barbara Baron, a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition, tells Yahoo Life.
Conlon explains that chocolate milk can be a great way to help kids meet their protein and calcium needs. An eight ounce serving of low fat chocolate milk has about 150 calories, 8 grams of protein, including all essential amino acids you can only get from food, and up to 30% of daily calcium needs for four to 18 year olds.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, less than 15% of adolescent girls meet the recommended daily allowance for calcium, which is “a key nutrient for children and teens for building strong bones and teeth,” Sarah Pflugradt, dietitian and founder of Fueling Active Kids, tells Yahoo Life.
Offering chocolate milk in school can encourage children to meet their recommended three servings of dairy a day. “This can be especially important for children who do not consume enough dairy products at home,” says Conlon. “For children who qualify for free lunch and breakfast, up to 50% of their nutrition may come from school.”
Pflugradt adds: “Let’s not forget about how many children go through periods of picky eating and may not be getting a wide range of foods that offer protein, calcium and vitamin D.” Chocolate milk can help fill these gaps in nutrition, and support healthy growth during these developmental years.
Are some brands of chocolate milk better?
While most brands of chocolate milk are nutritionally similar, some add nutrients specifically beneficial for growing kids. Horizon Organic, for example, adds DHA omega-3, which supports brain and eye health.
Since chocolate milk doesn’t need to be super sweet for it to be tasty, Pflugradt recommends choosing a chocolate milk with a low amount of added sugar. One example is Fairlife chocolate milk, which touts 50% more protein and 50% less sugar compared to regular chocolate milk by including the artificial sweetener sucralose.
If there’s no added sugar, it probably has an alternative sweetener, making it a personal decision on whether you choose that brand, Pflugradt says.
Should chocolate milk be banned?
Overall, these pediatric nutritionists support leaving chocolate milk on the menu for all school-age children. “The National School Lunch Program is important and continually changing to help improve the diets of American children, but I feel like the demonization of chocolate milk is misguided,” says Pflugradt.
And, as Baron points out, “Low-fat flavored milk is a powerful nutrient package that kids love.” Experts recommend instead limiting chocolate milk to one 8 oz. serving per day and being mindful of its overall added sugar content.
However, what may be most important, say experts, is being mindful of food messaging to children to help them make informed choices and fostering a healthy relationship with food as adults. Katie Shepherd, dietitian and owner of Food Explorers, tells Yahoo Life that labeling foods good, bad or unhealthy can lead to binging behaviors when a restricted food becomes available.
Bottom line, says Shepherd, “When assessing added sugar, look at the child’s diet as a whole, not just their beverages at school.”
Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board certified health and wellness coach.
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