With schools under increasing pressure to offer healthier food, the staple on children’s cafeteria trays has come under attack over the very ingredient that made it so popular—sugar.
Some school districts have gone as far as prohibiting flavored milk, and Florida considered a statewide ban in schools. Other districts have sought a middle ground by replacing flavored milks containing high-fructose corn syrup with versions containing sugar, which some see as a more natural sweetener.
Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, is the latest district to tackle the issue. Superintendent John Deasy recently announced he would push this summer to remove chocolate and strawberry milk from school menus.
But nutritionists—and parents—are split over whether bans make sense, especially when about 70 percent of milk consumed in schools is flavored, mostly chocolate, according to the industry-backed Milk Processors Education Program.
Many, including the School Nutrition Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, and National Medical Association, argue that the nutritional value of flavored low-fat or skim milk outweighs the harm of added sugar. Milk contains nine essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and protein.
A joint statement from those groups points to studies that show kids who drink fat-free, flavored milk meet more of their nutrient needs and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers.
“Chocolate milk has been unfairly pegged as one of the causes of obesity,” said Julie Buric, vice president of marketing for the Milk Processors Education Program.
Others note the nation’s child obesity epidemic and say flavored milk simply needs to go.
Eight ounces of white milk served in Los Angeles public schools contains 14 grams of natural sugar or lactose; fat-free chocolate milk has an extra six grams of sugar for a total of 20 grams, while fat-free strawberry milk has a total of 27 grams – the same as eight ounces of Coca-Cola.
“Chocolate milk is soda in drag,” said Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Louisville, Colo., which has banned flavored milk. “It works as a treat in homes, but it doesn’t belong in schools.”
Flavored milk is also a target of British TV chef Jamie Oliver, who has made revamping school food a signature cause.
For a segment to be aired on his “Food Revolution” TV show, he recently filled a school bus with white sand to represent the amount of sugar Los Angeles Unified school children consume weekly in flavored milk.
“If you have flavored milk, that’s candy,” he told The Associated Press.