Chocolate milk: better than no milk?

The dairy industry recently rolled out an expensive media campaign in praise of chocolate milk, a classic school lunch drink that’s under assault for its sugar content. As trade groups spend upward of $1 million to defend the drink, three fifth-graders have come to its rescue.

A year after the school district in Barrington, Ill., banned flavored milk from its elementary- and middle-school lunch menus, students persuaded administrators to give it another chance.

“Kids weren’t drinking the white milk,” said Haley Morris, 10. “It’s better to have the chocolate milk than nothing.”

Now the sweetened drinks are served on Fridays, as the district tries to decide whether the benefits of calcium and Vitamin D are worth the added sugar -- about three teaspoons per half-pint.

Barrington’s dairy dilemma is an example of a discussion playing out across the country, as educators try to reconcile two concerns: childhood obesity and insufficient calcium intake. Even experts have trouble finding a satisfying answer.

“Flavored milk has more calories from the sweeteners that are in it. There’s no getting around that,” said Dr. Frank Greer, former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ nutrition committee. “It is an uncomfortable position to be in when you’re asked this question. I say it comes down to too many calories or, well, it’s better than other things in the soda machine.”

Officials with the Milk Processor Education Program, a trade group for the dairy industry, said they did not know how many school districts had pulled flavored milk. But they said anecdotal examples, as well as growing concerns about childhood nutrition, convinced them that they needed to promote chocolate milk as healthy.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for one, offers fat-free chocolate milk in its elementary and middle schools.

National health organizations agree that milk, whatever its flavor, has benefits for young bodies. Bone density peaks during adolescence, and calcium is vital to bone strength. Milk offers calcium, Vitamin D and a host of other nutrients. Children need about 32 ounces of milk daily just to get the recommended allotment of Vitamin D, Greer said.

Milk processors argue that children might not receive those benefits if chocolate milk is taken away. “There is a huge concern that if kids don’t care for [the taste of plain milk], they won’t actually drink it,” said Vivien Godfrey, the milk trade group’s chief executive.

But Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said schools should not presume that children will shun no-frills milk.

She studied milk consumption in federally funded preschools across Connecticut where only plain milk was offered, and found that those young children drank it happily.

“What I don’t understand is, when a child turns 5 and enters kindergarten, all of a sudden people think they will stop drinking plain milk,” she said.

She conceded, however, that it can be difficult to reclaim kids who have already encountered sweetened milk.

“Chocolate milk every day didn’t seem like the healthiest option,” said Eva Detloff, the Barrington district’s nursing supervisor. So beginning with the 2008-09 school year, Barrington schools removed chocolate and strawberry milk from the menu.

Students hated the decision. Even some parents, said Supt. Tom Leonard, complained that the policy went too far.

Then over the summer, Haley and two other students came by his office with some evidence -- and a request.

Inspired by a book about a young activist, Haley had gathered petition signatures asking for the return of flavored milk. She and her friends also pointed out that students were bringing drinks from home like fruit juice and Gatorade, which also have relatively high sugar content.

Leonard agreed to a trial: The schools would serve flavored milk each Friday and figure out how that affected milk consumption.

School employees now compare how much milk is tossed out on plain-milk-only days and flavor Fridays. The study will run through January, when the district will decide the future of flavored milk. But Haley thinks the current solution is the right one.

“Once a week couldn’t hurt,” she said. “It’s still milk.”