Bad government programs watch: Promoting milk as a health food

School milk
One last quaff? Ivan Ballesteros, 12, a student at Marina Del Rey Middle School, drinks choolate milk during lunchtime in 2011.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

In a detailed new report, public health advocate Michele Simon examines the distinct drawbacks of government programs to promote dairy consumption.

These include milk programs in schools and the “checkoff” programs through which the government extracts mandatory payments from dairy producers and transforms them into advertising like the ubiquitous “Got Milk” campaign.

The problem, of course, is that milk, cheese, yogurt, and related products are not, properly speaking “health foods.” Loaded with sugar and saturated fat, they’re major contributors to America’s obesity epidemic, especially among children. 

And let’s not kid ourselves that the checkoff is aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at promoting childhood health. As Simon reports, the checkoff helped Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadilla, a beast that packs 750 calories onto the plate, including nearly half the daily guideline for adult intake of saturated fat and fully 78% of the recommended daily allowance of sodium; adults would almost play dice with their health less by consuming a helping of fugu, the famed Japanese poison fish. The product helped Taco Bell achieve a 4% increase in dairy sales.


Among the program’s other triumphs was an increase in milk usage by McDonald’s by 1 billion pounds over the three years through 2011, thanks to the promotion of frappes and specialty coffees, among other factors. A small mocha frappe (12 ounces) delivers 450 calories and enough saturated fat to satisfy nearly 60% of your recommended daily allowance. 

The dairy industry, or what pediatrician Aaron Carroll labels the “milk industrial complex,” moves heaven and earth to promote milk in almost any form as the key to healthy living at almost all ages. What’s really at issue isn’t the dairymen’s interest in the health of their fellow Americans, but their concern over the long-term decline in fluid milk consumption in the U.S. And schools are a convenient marketing target, observes food industry expert Marion Nestle

The industry has mounted a ferocious pushback against efforts to remove chocolate- and other flavored milk from school lunchrooms, arguing that children will drink less milk and therefore ingest less life-giving calcium unless they can get it in a form that can be sweeter and more caloric than Coke, per ounce. Just last week this argument was guzzled down by Connecticut’s Democratic governor, Dan Malloy, who relied on it to veto a bill banning chocolate milk from the state’s schools. (The Los Angeles Unified School District is among those that have 86’d flavored milk from the school menu.)

But the basic assertion of the necessity of milk’s nutrients in a balanced diet has been widely questioned. Last year, Daniel Ludwig of Boston Childrens Hospital observed in the Journal of the American Medical Assoc. that “humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk, an evolutionarily recent addition to diet.” He pointed out the lack of empirical evidence that milk fosters bone strength: “Throughout the world, bone fracture rates tend to be lower in countries that do not consume milk compared with those that do.” The evidence extends to adults, he noted. Adequate calcium is available from much less unhealthy sources, including leafy greens, seafood, and fruit.


As for tempting children with flavored milk, from a dietary standpoint that’s disastrous. Substituting sweetened low-fat milk (the customary offering) for unsweetened whole milk, Ludwig wrote, “Lowers saturated fat by 3 (grams) but increased sugar by 13 g per cup -- clearly undermines diet quality, especially in a population with excessive sugar consumption.”

For more, see this video primer by Aaron Carroll. 

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