Should Chocolate Milk Be Served In Schools?

Chocolate Milk Debate
By: Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist

As you probably know by now, I’m a mom to two wonderful boys and while I enjoy implementing healthy eating at home, it’s also important to me that they have healthy options at school too. And they agree. Just before the holidays (a time where sweets are a plenty), an important sugar-related topic was discussed at one of our local elementary schools where 5th graders held an informative debate.

Should chocolate milk be served in schools? This seemingly simple question has sparked a lot of controversy in recent years.  A few school districts across the US have voted to ban chocolate milk, however in most schools it remains a staple where 70% of milk consumed in schools is flavored and low-fat chocolate is the favorite choice.  The chocolate milk brands served in schools vary, but federal criteria dictate it must be low fat.  Recently, the state of Connecticut almost outlawed chocolate milk from all schools and would have become the first to pass this state-wide.  While the CT House & Senate voted to ban chocolate milk, the Governor and self-proclaimed chocolate milk lover, vetoed the bill.

Students Speak Out

My son Cooper, a non-milk drinking vegetarian 5th grader, and I were honored to be invited to sit on the panel for the debate.  Fifth Grade students chose to be on the “For chocolate milk” or “Against chocolate milk” side of the argument.  The goal of the debate was really to learn about the process of debating, but the students clearly embraced the topic of chocolate milk.  Their research was excellent and both sides cited studies.  However, the side in favor of chocolate milk’s data came from what I would consider biased sources, like the Dairy industry and local Dairy Council.

Students on the favorable side also noted that professional athletes drink chocolate milk and promote it.  In discussion, it was clear that they were unaware of the potential financial gain associated with endorsements.  Learning about the non-nutrition aspects that play into what’s offered in schools was eye opening for all participants.

Both sides were opposed to the inclusion of carrageenan in chocolate milk.  The “against” side went as far as to make a video showing the student’s disgust drinking the red-seaweed based additive. The “for” side did identify different chocolate milk brand options that are organic and don’t include carrageenan, but noted they’re far lower in protein.

What’s Wrong with Chocolate Milk?

The biggest issue that both sides (and I ) agreed with, is added sugar.  This is indeed no laughing matter.  Let’s break down the math to reveal just why, in my opinion, chocolate milk has too much added sugars to be considered a healthy choice for kids at school.  Especially since research shows that Fruits + Veggies – Sugary Processed Foods = Better Grades, Better Behavior for school children.

Nutrition Facts per 8 oz of Low-Fat Chocolate Milk

  • 24 grams total sugar
  • Half is added sugars = 12 grams
  • The other half is natural sugar from lactose found in milk

Here are foods that also contain 12 grams of added sugars that would clearly not be seen as healthy for school kids:

  • 1 serving/oz of M&Ms
  • 4 oz of Coca-Cola
  • 1 serving/oz of Gummy Bears
  • 5 Hershey Kisses

The “Against Chocolate Milk” team demonstrated the absurd amount of added sugars a student could consume from choosing this type of milk just three days a week for a school year, with a big jar of Jolly Ranchers.  Cooper’s argument was, “If we are allowed to have this sugar at school I’d pick the candy over chocolate milk any day!”

  • 1 serving of vanilla cake with frosting has the same sugar as 8 oz of chocolate milk. We are not allowed to celebrate birthdays in schools with cake anymore because it’s “unhealthy” and food allergies, why can we serve the same amount of sugar to them every day in beverage form?

What are the Caloric Ramifications of Choosing Extra Sugar from Chocolate vs. Unflavored Milk?

  • 190 calories in Chocolate Milk vs. 122 in 2% plain milk = 68 calories More
  • 5 days per week = 340 calories * 36 weeks in school year = 12,240 Extra Calories from Added SUGAR each year!
  • That’s 3 ½ pounds of potential weight gain each year
  • For their entire elementary school K – 5 career this could mean an extra 21 pounds of body fat per child!!! 

Seriousness of Childhood Obesity

Why Not Water?

We don’t need flavored milk for vital nutrients!

Protein, phosphorus, calcium…many foods already available in schools offer the same important nutrients that supporters state we need chocolate milk in order to get them into our kids. I came prepared to the debate with the school’s menu printed out so the students could identify foods, other than chocolate milk, that could provide these essential nutrients.  Interestingly, all the students on the panel noted they do not buy lunch from the cafeteria, instead bringing lunch from home, just like my kids.  Reasons included that it, “tastes terrible,” and “isn’t real food.”  In fact, none of the children on this panel drink the chocolate milk they were supporting!

Examples of foods on the school menu that provide essential nutrients for kids:

  • Protein – very prevalent like meat, chicken, cheese, milk, beans. Cooper notes that “very few vegetarian protein rich meals are offered.”
  • Potassium – colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Vitamin D – mushrooms, salmon (neither are on school menu but could be brought from home.) Vitamin D from food won’t adequately address deficiency risk we have living in New England – most kids will need supplements regardless of milk consumption for this vitamin, check with your pediatrician.
  • Calcium – green vegetables, soy foods, beans, fish
  • Phosphorus – meat, whole grain breads and cereals

Targeting Kids

  • 80% of flavored milk in the US is sold to schools
  • Sugar will always be a preferred energy source for humans, it’s not about kids being able to make different choices
  • All beverages offered to elementary school children should be mindful of sugar content. We can help kids make healthy choices by setting up sugar boundaries
  • Sugar sweetened beverages are a key culprit in childhood (and adult) obesity and related health risks
  • Sugar and cravings – set up reward-based motivation that is difficult to overcome
  • Serving excess sweets can set kids up for desiring sugar sweetened beverages and struggling over their lifetime
  • It’s a missed opportunity for wellness by not serving water

Kids Say It Best

Here are a few quotes from some of Cooper’s classmates!

“I was on the ‘no’ side because I don’t think chocolate milk is healthy.  It has too much sugar and sugar isn’t healthy.  We just want to be healthy.”  – Isabella

“I think the problem with the sugar in chocolate milk is that drinking it or eating a lot of sugar can make you form bad habits.”  – John

Make sure you catch Joe Cross’ latest film, “The Kids Menu.” In this inspiring and hopeful documentary, we see amazing programs in action, inspiring individuals paving the way for change, but most of all — Kids, taking the lead in getting healthier options on their own menu. Pre-order it today and watch it on February 12. 

Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist

Stacy is a Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition and an Integrative Nutritionist. She consults for various companies, focusing on health, wellness and innovative strategies to help increase individual’s fruit and vegetable intake. Stacy is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Health Fitness Specialist; she holds a BS degree in Dietetics from Indiana University, completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, and earned a Masters in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Senior Clinical Nutritionist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School teaching affiliates, in Boston, MA, with more than 20 years of experience. Stacy created and now serves as project manager and lead writer for nutrition services content on the Dana Farber website and the affiliated, nationally recognized nutrition app. Stacy is regularly featured on TV, radio, print and social media on behalf of Dana Farber and other organizations. Together with her husband, Dr. Russell Kennedy PsyD, they have a private practice, Wellness Guides, LLC. Stacy is an adjunct professor in Wellness and Health Coaching at William James College, currently teaching a graduate course in Health Coaching. Stacy is featured in the award winning documentary films, “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead” and “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead 2,” and serves on the Reboot with Joe Medical Advisory Board. Stacy lives in Wellesley with her husband, two sons and three dogs. She enjoys cooking, yoga, hiking and spending time with friends and family. Stacy is also one of the nutritionists who runs our Guided Reboot programs.

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