Debating the Merits of Chocolate Milk



The Post-Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.)

June 12, 1997

By Lori Duffy

Katherine Bohn drinks mostly white milk at home, but that changes when the 7-year-old Roxboro Road Elementary School student has a choice.

Like 96 percent of students who drink milk in the North Syracuse district, Bohn pulls 1 percent chocolate milk from the school coolers.

“The chocolate isn’t very good for you, but the milk is,” Bohn said. “I like it. I like strawberry, too.”

White milk is rarely found on lunch trays among North Syracuse’s 10,000 students, according to a yearlong study by Nancy Kerrigan, director of food services.

Kerrigan’s study shows 1.8 percent of the students who drink milk choose 2 percent white milk. Another 1.4 percent take skim milk and 1.1 percent prefer whole white milk.

The rest drink chocolate. “I was amazed,” Kerrigan said. “I knew that chocolate was one of the biggest sellers, but I didn’t think that many kids drink chocolate milk.”

Kerrigan said she isn’t concerned. The chocolate milk is lower in fat than whole white milk, but higher in calories. Under federal guidelines, schools must offer meals that are high in calories, but derive no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat.

That balance is difficult to achieve, Kerrigan said. The 1 percent chocolate milk helps boost calories and lower fat in the menus. The sweetness also encourages children who don’t like milk to drink it, she said. Milk contains calcium and protein growing children need.

“We need to find things with more calories, and chocolate milk helps,” Kerrigan said.

But Susan E. Brown, a Syracuse nutritionist, anthropologist and author of the book “Better Bones, Better Body,” said chocolate milk is a poor way to boost calories in meals.

Children need nutrients that they don’t get in the chocolate milk to digest the sugar. Schools would be smarter to offer milk substitutes or purified water, she said. Brown’s own son drinks rice milk.

“Sweetening wholesome foods to make them palatable is a trend we should avoid as much as possible,” Brown said. “People become more deficient in nutrients the more sugar they eat.”

The idea that chocolate milk is a healthy alternative is a promotional tactic on the part of milk producers, Brown said. In its literature, the American Dairy Association compares chocolate milk to sweetened soft drinks and orange juice.

Both are high in sugar. New studies show that parents give their children too much juice and should serve them whole fruits instead. Chocolate milk contains the same amount of sugar as orange juice and two teaspoons less than soft drinks, according to the National Dairy Council.

“It’s like saying: How do you get kids not to eat cookies and cupcakes and to eat fruit instead? You just don’t put cookies and cupcakes out there. I wouldn’t give them chocolate milk in school,” Brown said.

Kerrigan said Brown is right, but idealistic. The schools must sell enough lunches to support their cafeterias. The district must offer children foods they like while meeting the nutritional guidelines and keeping the costs down.

“Milk substitutes are so expensive, it’s prohibitive to use,” Kerrigan said. “I think she’s being very idealistic, and she’s probably nutritionally right on the mark. I’m being realistic.”

Compared to the drinks parents send to school with their children, chocolate milk is healthier, Kerrigan said. Most parents give their children inexpensive drinks that are simply sweetened water.

“I would rather the kids drink the chocolate milk,” she said. But there are still a few children out there who don’t have that sweet tooth. Roxboro Road students Matt Fiaschetti, 8, and Sara Mann, 7, said they drink white milk because they prefer it.

Chocolate milk is too sugary, they said. “I like chocolate and I like white, but I like white the most,”

Fiaschetti said with a shrug. “I drink chocolate once in a while.”