A few weeks ago, Jen, a teacher friend of mine posted a photo to her Facebook wall depicting four cartons of milk from her school’s lunch room, and the incredulous comments began to fly. It seems that Jen has been working with her class on healthy eating, and she had a real big problem with the fact that not only was chocolate milk offered, so too were strawberry and coffee (a regional favorite) varieties. According to her, these items were offered to increase the chance that the kids would take a milk at lunch, and the sugar levels contained within them–27 grams per 8 oz. in the coffee one!–was, in essence, irrelevant. Well geez, that’s an interesting way to look at it, considering the sugar content is equivalent to a can of Red Bull. In fact, eating two standard Reese’s cups will actually save you almost two teaspoons of sugar over the flavored milk.
Some arguments for the use of flavored milk in schools have merit, at least in theory. I can subscribe, for example, to the notion that a carton of chocolate milk might make the difference in whether some particular children will consume enough protein in a meal. Kids are picky. I’m a mom and I know this. I remember saying to my toddlers, “Finish your milk and you can leave the table.” I figured it’s easier to suck down a few ounces of milk and call it good than try to get two more bites of fish into a three year-old. It was an insurance policy.
But I also know that kids are only picky within the limits of what they perceive as available, and “perceive” is the operative word; for, if they think you’re holding out on them or you’ve created a reasonable expectation that they can have certain things, they’ll pitch a fit or stage a quiet demonstration until they get it. For that reason, I think keeping flavored milk out of a school lunch program would make the best sense of all, but let’s face it: baby steps work best. So maybe we don’t get rid of it entirely right now; perhaps instead we limit its use to specific days or for special occasions. This would impart the lesson that treats are treats, not a necessary or appropriate part of a (or every) complete meal. We don’t want to villainize anything. That just makes kids want it more. We want to educate.
Proponents of flavored milk also claim that it’s is an essential source of certain vitamins and nutrients. What they’re really saying is that milk is the way to get these things into kids with the least amount of effort on the adult’s part. If the kid drinks milk then we don’t have to teach them to eat whole foods that provide what they need, even though tons of kid-friendly whole foods more than supply the Vitamins A and D cited as fluid milk’s primary benefit.
I think that when it comes down to it, we’re making a big mistake by framing the issue of flavored milks in schools as a health issue. The fact is, it’s teaching moment. It’s when we can look our kids in the eye and say, no beverage on its own–whether hot, cold, fortified, organic, flavored, or brewed in cauldrons by Greek gods–is going to provide you adequate nutrition to support your optimal growth and health over the long term. The only thing that will do that is good, clean, whole foods. So if we work from a foundation of those, you leave room for chocolate milk in your life.
Yet, too many kids, parents, and administrators have become complacent about flavored milks, and they’ve wormed their way into the very heart of our society: the schools. So when kids are at the most impressionable time of their lives and navigating the most important developmental stage of their lives–both physically and mentally–their school food is washed down by a beverage whose sugar content equals that of six Oreo cookies. For many kids, schools provide two meals a day for the majority of the week for the majority of the year.
So where’s the happy medium? Well, it depends on how you define the problem. I think everyone can probably agree that chocolate milk has a place in a balanced diet just as chocolate bars do. We can teach limits, we can educate about better alternatives, and we could find better ways to do it. For example, it took me very little time to develop a homemade chocolate syrup from one cup of water mixed with 1 1/2 cups of plain sugar and 3/4 c. of unsweetened cocoa and flavored two teaspoons of vanilla extract, which made a tasty chocolate milk with half the sugar, no sodium, and 40% fewer calories than the leading Hershey’s syrup.
By boiling four simple ingredients on the stovetop for two minutes, I effectively took control of the chocolate milk served in my house. No preservatives, less sugar, and fewer calories. One tablespoon of my syrup mixed with 8 oz. of milk makes a tasty treat. Does it earn Guiding Stars? Nope. But it mitigates a problem a ton of schools and parents are facing.
Could schools do this? Of course! Both main ingredients are available through bulk purchasing, which means it’s cheap and available. Replacing standard chocolate milk cartons with a shot of this lower sugar syrup will effectively halve the amount of sugar a chocolate milk-loving child has from his drinks for the entire school year. That’s a good place to start. But that doesn’t mean it’s still the best way to get the nutrition we need into our kids.
Sugary milk at school is just another message we send to kids that we come to regret later: if it’s fortified with vitamins, it’s good for you. Kids need to learn that fortified generally is better than unfortified, but whole is better than processed. And really, the best kind of nutrition comes from a wide and varied diet. The benefit of dietary proteins gleaned from legumes, lean meats, and fish is superior then a diet of milk protein alone. Vitamin A, so critical for healthy and developing eyes, is better had from carrots or squash rather than fortified chocolate milk, because the whole food sources impart additional benefits, such as dietary fiber and trace minerals.
When we tell kids we give them sugary flavored milks because they need the Vitamin A and D, we’re missing our chance to teach. When we’re trying to get kids invested in healthier school lunch programs and we still serve a drink with 27 grams of sugar per serving, we’re telling these kids that drink is healthy. The change has to come comprehensively and with an explanation. Teachers like my friend Jen are taking matters into their own hands, and for that I am grateful. It’s through education that real reform happens, and we must mindfully approach the problem while our kids are impressionable–and before they become inflexible.