Is Low-Fat Chocolate Milk or 100% Fruit Juice a Healthier Drink?

By: Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.  |  Thursday, September 25, 2014

Picking healthy foods at the grocery store, especially for kids, can feel pretty confusing. There are thousands of foods to choose from. But how do you know if the ones that seem wholesome and nutritious actually are?
We put two popular drinks head to head to find out which is healthier: this or that? When it comes to picking a refreshing and fun beverage, which is a healthier choice—low-fat chocolate milk or 100% fruit juice?
You want something that packs in nutrients and keeps you feeling full if you’re out for a hike or on the go all day. We put two snack foods head to head to find out which is healthier: this or that? Granola bars or trail mix?
The Winner: Chocolate milk is the better pick, as Joyce Hendley originally reported for EatingWell. Here's why:
The Sugar Story: On the surface, chocolate milk seems an unlikely choice. As critics often point out, it contains nearly as much sugar as soda: 1 cup of low-fat chocolate milk has 25 grams of sugar, whereas the same amount of Coca-Cola has 26 grams. But, for chocolate milk, only about half of those sugars are added sugars, the ones people generally need to be concerned about.
Natural Sugars: More than half of that overall sugar contained in the chocolate milk, or about 13 grams in a cup, is naturally occurring sugar, or lactose, in the milk itself.
In 100% fruit juice, all the sugars are naturally occurring—with some 21 grams in a cup of 100% orange juice. But sugar isn’t the whole story for these two beverages.
Nutritional Value: In citrus juices there’s plenty of vitamin C (84 mg in that glass of OJ—more than 100 percent of the daily value).
But that’s about all you get—sugar and a vitamin few of us lack. More important, you don’t have the benefit of the filling, healthy fiber that the original fruit in its entirety provides.
Consider this: A medium orange has 3 grams fiber, but 1 cup of OJ has less than 1 gram… and nearly twice the amount of sugar.
Milk is a nutritional powerhouse, in contrast, whether it’s flavored with chocolate or not. Milk is one of the best sources of bone-building calcium: 1 cup provides a third of an adult’s daily needs. It’s important for kids to get enough of this mineral so their bodies can build strong bones. Plus there’s plenty of riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus and protein in milk. Fluid milk is fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient that’s hard to come by in foods and helps the body absorb calcium and may improve immunity, reduce risks for some cancers, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and promote better blood pressure.
100% of What? One more reason to opt against juice: healthy-sounding “100% juice” blends may not have that much of the headline juice (say, pomegranate or berry) inside, anyway. That bottle might be mostly filled with (cheaper) apple or white grape juice, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest has likened to “white sugar,” since its nutrient content is fairly low.
Conclusion: Water is still our favorite drink to hydrate with. But for a special sweet treat, chocolate milk is the better bet. Be sure to eat plenty of fruit, too, just eat it whole to get all the nutritious benefits.
Learn More: Why Too Much Added Sugar Is Bad for You
Related: Watch More Grocery Store Face-Offs Between Popular Foods