The other night on my drive home, I heard something on National Public Radio that really got under my skin. Some schools across the country are outlawing flavored milk. And crusading for the cause is Ann Cooper, who I must admit, I generally respect as a school-lunch-reform maven: she called chocolate milk "soda in drag." Cooper, Nutrition Services Director for Boulder Valley School District, has outlawed flavored milk from her district, just one of many other schools to do so. (Enough have banned the drink to prompt the dairy industry to rally the many pediatricians and dietitians who vehemently oppose the ban on chocolate milk for a new campaign called Raise Your Hand for Milk.)
As a mom and a nutritionist I, too, think that the ban on chocolate milk is crazy. I don't like milk—never have. But, growing up, my mom knew I needed calcium so she did what she could to get dairy into my diet, including hiding it in things like oatmeal and tomato soup. Including pairing it with a chocolate-chip cookie. Including stirring a spoonful of Hershey's syrup into my milk at home or letting me buy the chocolate milk at school. (Click here for more calcium-rich recipes.)
Cooper says that chocolate milk has as much sugar as soda. Should you quit soda? Find out if soda's really that bad here. In a way she's right: According to the USDA's nutrition database, one cup of chocolate milk has 25 grams of sugars; a cup of soda has 26 grams. (For the record, a cup of 100% orange juice has 21 grams of sugars.) What she fails to mention, though, is that only half of the sugars in chocolate milk (12 grams) are added sugars, the ones people generally need to be concerned about. The rest are natural sugars—and a cup of "regular" milk has 13 grams of sugars.
The bigger point that Cooper is missing is that milk—regular or chocolate—is chock-full of vitamins and minerals that children, and adults, need. Flavored or not, milk provides calcium (1 cup provides a third of one's daily needs), vitamin D, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus and protein.
EatingWell's nutrition advisor and University of Vermont nutrition professor, Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., is one of many health and nutrition experts who support chocolate milk in schools. (It's worth noting that Dr. Johnson was the lead author on the recent paper released by the American Heart Association urging Americans to cut back on added sugars.) Johnson's research, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that kids who drank flavored milk had higher calcium intakes than kids who didn't drink flavored milks but their intakes of added sugars were similar. So it appears that the flavored-milk drinks didn't actually end up adding excessive sugars to kids' diets, as chocolate-milk banners would suggest.
Another one of Johnson's studies found that only kids who drank milk at lunchtime came close to meeting their calcium requirements. I interpret this to mean that for plain-milk haters (like me), taking away kids' option to have chocolate milk at lunch is putting them at risk for nutritional deficiencies.
I'm a mom now and, just like my mom did for me, I take great care to make sure that my son gets the calcium he needs. I make sure he gets his "3 a Day" of dairy through yogurt and milk. He likes his milk straight up. But if there comes a time that swirling in a little chocolate is what it takes to provide my kid with the nutrients he needs, I'd have no problem pulling out the spoon.
How do you help your family get enough calcium? Tell us what you think below.