Last week I was watching Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution," the British chef's reality TV show, which is filming in Los Angeles this season. On the show, which aired April 12, Oliver demonized the chocolate milk L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) serves their students, calling it "the equivalent of a candy bar." Oliver filled a school bus with sand to represent the amount of sugar in flavored milk that he claimed is consumed by LAUSD students every week.

PHOTO CREDIT: David Loftus

As a child nutrition expert, I am the first person to step up and applaud anyone trying to make a dent in our national childhood obesity crisis. After all, we may be looking at the first generation of American children who won't live as long as their parents because of obesity-related diseases. But I've conducted research on U.S. children's beverage consumption patterns for more than a decade and Oliver's focus on chocolate milk worries me.

I've had a lot of experience feeding children, both my own and as part of my research. I know that banning chocolate milk in schools means kids will drink less milk overall and miss out on essential nutrients. I also fear that with too many school restrictions, we'll end up with kids abandoning the well-balanced school meal altogether and heading straight to the corner store or fast-food restaurant for fries and a soft drink. I think we'll get a lot further working together with school-nutrition professionals to offer children meals that include nutritious, low-fat, lower-added-sugar, lower-calorie, good-tasting foods and beverages that they accept and enjoy.

Why should low-fat, low-added-sugar chocolate milk stay in school cafeterias? For starters, we've learned from our research that:

• Children who drink milk at lunch are the only ones who come close to meeting their daily calcium recommendations.

• Compared to kids who drink plain milk, children who drink flavored milk consume more milk overall (both unflavored and flavored) and fewer soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks. They also get more calcium, vitamin D and potassium (three nutrients many kids don't get enough of). Plus, they get all these benefits without consuming more total added sugars than kids who just drink unflavored milk.

• There is no difference in the BMI (Body Mass Index) of children who drink flavored milk compared with plain milk or nonmilk drinkers.

These findings are part of the reason why New York City (serving 1.1 million children, the largest school district in the country) removed whole milk from their schools in 2004, but kept chocolate milk, though they switched to a fat-free version. Chocolate milk accounted for approximately 60 percent of milk purchases in NYC, according to a 2010 paper in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. And although there was an initial decline in milk purchases after the change, purchases have rebounded and are now slightly higher. I think NYC is getting it right. They aren't sacrificing children's intake of the essential nutrients that milk provides by completely eliminating chocolate milk.

Oliver also claimed that L.A. schoolchildren are getting 27 grams of sugar in every 8 ounces of chocolate milk they drink. What he didn't share with viewers is that 12 grams of this comes from the naturally occurring milk sugar lactose. That leaves 15 grams (60 calories or about 4 teaspoons) of added sugars. He also failed to mention the fact that milk processors around the country have reduced the fat and calories in chocolate milk sold to schools. New formulas of fat-free, low-added-sugars chocolate milk are available-and are being served in schools across the country including California. For example, California milk processors make a fat-free chocolate milk for schools with 10 grams of added sugars (2.5 teaspoons) and only 120 calories per 8 ounces.

Last week, my Ph.D. student Bethany Yon and I presented research that tested children's acceptance of lower-calorie flavored milks. We measured 467 children's actual consumption of traditional flavored milk (160 to 170 calories per 8 ounces) and compared it with 259 children consuming lower-calorie flavored milk (150 calories per 8 ounces) and found there was no difference in how much milk the kids drank. The children in our study accepted the "healthier" milk. Next we plan to look at whether kids like flavored milk with even less fat, fewer calories and fewer added sugars.

Tell us: do you think Jamie Oliver's battle against chocolate milk is worth it or is it the wrong target?

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., for EatingWell Magazine

Nicci Micco

Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., is an EatingWell advisor and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont. Dr. Johnson is Vice Chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee and a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Science Board.

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