by Marion Nestle
Nov 18 2009

Chocolate milk redux: Nutrifluff vs. Policy

First, the “Nutrifluff,” my term for research with results that are intriguing but of unknown clinical significance.  I thank everyone who sent me links to the New York Times account of the new study linking chocolate milk to reduced inflammation.  It quotes the lead author:  “Since atherosclerosis is a low-grade inflammatory disease of the arteries, regular cocoa intake seems to prevent or reduce [it].”   But the giveaway is the next magic words that cover all bases: “more studies needed.”

The study suggests – but in no way proves – that drinking chocolate milk reduces the risk of coronary artery disease.  Inflammation is an intermediate marker of suggestive but unconfirmed clinical implications.  More research is needed, indeed.

Next, policy.  Recall the fuss over chocolate milk (see previous post on the topic)?   Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center at Yale has posted an explanation of her views on the matter.

The “chocolate milk controversy” story this week is not about nutrition; it’s about marketing…They explain that “more than half of all flavored milk is sold in schools,” and “the importance of flavored milk goes beyond the school market because it is a key growth area for milk processors.”

They are trying to sell their product. There is nothing wrong with that as long as their marketing efforts are not misleading. Chocolate milk is not the nutritional equivalent of regular milk. It is significantly higher in calories, sugar (often high fructose corn syrup), sodium, and usually contains artificial colors and flavors.

In the promotional video on YouTube, expert dieticians acknowledged that chocolate milk has about 60 more calories per serving than regular milk, but then quickly added that “in the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing compared to the amount of nutrients they are going to be getting.”

That sounded really familiar.

“In the grand scheme of things, these calories don’t count” is exactly what we heard from David Mackay, the CEO of Kellogg in his defense of marketing his company’s high-sugar cereals: “Twelve grams of sugar is 50 calories. A presweetened cereal as part of a regular diet for kids is not a bad thing.”

50 calories here, 60 calories there, and pretty soon we are talking about real weight gain.

Our research has found that children will eat low-sugar cereals and drink white milk when these are the foods that are served. We also found that most children will also eat a piece of fruit if you prompt them to take it. School cafeterias are the perfect place to reinforce the nutrition lessons that begin at home and promote nutrient-dense foods.

If chocolate milk were the only treat children were exposed to in schools, it would not be nearly as much of a problem.  But it is not.  In many schools, kids are offered sweet treats all day long (birthday celebrations, rewards from teachers, etc) or exposed to those readily available from vending machines.  So sweet foods have become the norm.  Norms are hard to change, but let’s at least not make them worse.

  • Betsy

    As the mother of a child who would rather go hungry (and often does) than eat or drink foods and beverages he doesn’t like, I think it’s important to leave room here for a diversity of experiences. I was thrilled to learn that my son would drink chocolate milk because he has completely rejected white cow’s milk. As a baby, he was allergic to dairy (at least via breastmilk), so we started him on soy milk after age 1 in addition to nursing. He is now 6 and still loves soy milk and hates cow’s milk, despite having grown out of his allergy around 18 months. Except he loves chocolate cow’s milk.

    As a very active (bike-commuting) vegetarian child who doesn’t eat any junk food, I sometimes struggle to get enough calories into him. Whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables fill him up quickly, so the additional calories of the chocolate milk (we buy organic, cane sugar sweetened, not HFCS) don’t bother me at all.

    I guess my point is that not every child is struggling with obesity and not every school serves junk (his has solid, common-sense rules about it). Are we painting with too wide of a brush? Or am I just living in my leftie, hippie Seattle world?

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  • Corey

    I also think Andy Bellati said some good things about that study where chocolate milk reduced inflamation:

  • Most research on chocolate negates any health benefits when milk is added. The milk in milk chocolate has the potential to interfere with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate.

    Roberta Lee MD, from the Center for Health in Healing in New York City, recommends eating an occasional, small amount (like 2 to 3 oz) of the finest quality dark chocolate, which will most likely do more good than harm. Dr. Lee’s warning: No chocolate for those who are diabetic, overweight or hyperlipidemic.

    Note the word OCCASIONAL

    The chocolate milk hype is all about money and nothing else.
    Our kids health should be more important than the dairy industry’s bottom line.

  • Anthro

    Betsy in Seattle – Yes.

    I am from Seattle as well and raised my family in Portland, OR, but I know that public health policy is aimed at the entire population, which in general, is not as well-informed as many in the Northwest or other centers of well-educated, upwardly mobile people.

    My children only had soda twice a year–8 or 12 oz at the movies, but I wouldn’t pretend that that was the norm, even then.

    Your son is still young. As children venture more into the world outside their homes, they are exposed to increased marketing and to people who have been brought up differently. Just wait until your child is made fun of for being so “granola”! Peer pressure is a very powerful thing. The marketers use this to full advantage to undermine all your careful work.

  • My 5 year old niece told me that has to get Strawberry or Chocolate milk at school because the regular milk in schools is “icky” and doesn’t taste as good as the organic milk at home.

  • My biggest gripe with that “study” in the NY Times is that in conclusion, cocoa seemed to be the real winner (reducing inflammation) and milk had nothing to do with it, other than being the carrier.

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  • Yes, you live in a leftie, hippie, Seattle world. I live in one too, in Minneapolis, but unfortunately most people don’t live remotely close to here. We are talking about consumers who believe that food needs low quality, highly processed and environmentally unsound additives to taste good. They are highly influenced by the power of industrial food companies with extraordinary marketing power. Kids will eat what is given to them, if there are not bad choices, they won’t make them. Sadly, obesity and other diet related health issues are a huge concern for the majority (2 out of 3) of children in this country.

  • Drinking chocolate milk is like taking your vitamins with pudding, we should focus on doing the right things first when it comes to our health. Diabetes will affect 1-3 kids, we shouldn’t even be arguing this.