Does chocolate milk belong in schools? Health experts, policymakers, and concerned parents have been at this debate for years now. On one side, school districts, like those of Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, have banned all flavored milks because they contain up to twice as much sugar as white milk and may be making kids fat. On the other, many people argue that chocolate milk is better than no milk.
Chocolate milk bans are fairly new, so concrete evidence for whether kids drink the healthier stuff or simply consume less milk once the less sugary option is removed has been hard to come by. But researchers at the University of Cornell published some early findings in PLoS One this week after tracking milk sales in an Oregon school district that recently cut flavored options. Their results suggest the good intentions behind milk restrictions may have some unintended bad consequences.
Just under 10 percent of chocolate milk sales were not recovered. This suggests there was a considerable number of students who did, in fact, stop drinking milk.
The researchers, led by Andrew Hanks, compiled data from 11 elementary schools in the first couple months of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. Controlling for enrollment, they found the following:
THE GOOD NEWS: White milk sales increased by an average of 152 percent. This was enough to recover slightly more than 90 percent of chocolate milk sales, which means that many kids had no issues with making the switch.
THE BAD NEWS: The obvious flip side is that just under 10 percent of chocolate milk sales were not recovered. This suggests there was a considerable number of students who did, in fact, stop drinking milk. Hanks estimates that while, on average, each kid benefits from eight fewer grams of sugar and 37 fewer calories per chocolate milk-less lunch, they also lose out on one gram of protein, half a gram of fat, and five percent of their daily recommended calcium intake.
THE WORST NEWS: White milk’s increased sales also might not be as robust as they seem. Hanks compared the amount of milk bought but thrown out following the ban to the amount of milk wasted in a handful of no-ban districts, and the numbers suggest the students in the Oregon elementary schools tossed out almost 30 percent more milk than they would have if chocolate were an option. As the study notes, “It’s not nutrition until it’s eaten.”
The paper emphasizes that the experiment was “exploratory”—and some uncontrollable changes in the schools between years, like the closure of four of the district’s elementary schools and shifts in lunch menu cycles, certainly blur the study’s implications. But the results still should encourage school districts to consider less dogmatic approaches to reducing chocolate milk consumption, Hanks argues.
“[M]aking white milk relatively more convenient, attractive, and normal to choose (relative to chocolate milk) will lead some children to switch from chocolate to white,” he writes. “Yet, the remaining question is whether or not drinking chocolate milk is better than drinking an alternative caloric drink, such as a sports drink, or even not eating a school lunch at all.”
The researchers summarize their results in this very enthusiastic and zany video: