Does Banning Chocolate Milk in School Really Backfire?!?
|April 18, 2014||Posted by Stacy under Cafeteria food, Chocolate milk, Healthy lunch, School lunch|
Eliminating chocolate milk in school cafeterias is a subject of great debate, and one that I have yet to tackle on this blog. But the results of a new study have prompted me to break my silence.
Normally I’m a big fan of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab’s work, but its latest research has me scratching my head. The study, titled “Chocolate Milk Consequences: A Pilot Study Evaluating the Consequences of Banning Chocolate Milk in School Cafeterias,” examined what happened when chocolate and other flavored milks were removed from the cafeterias at 11 Oregon elementary schools. Researchers evaluated milk sales, milk waste, daily participation in the National School Lunch Program, and school enrollment after the milk switch and compared it with stats from the previous year.
The study results have been broadcast as bad news for the parents, teachers, nutrition advocates and organizations (including Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution) who have fought hard to do away with flavored milks that can have up to 4 teaspoons of added sugar per 8-ounce serving.
But Upon Closer Look…
Before hitting the panic button, let’s take a hard look at those study findings:
Fewer kids purchased milk overall When chocolate milk was removed from the cafeteria, milk sales dropped by 9.9 percent, according to the Cornell Food and Brand Lab study. But 90.1 percent of kids participating in the lunch program did, in fact, opt for white milk. That, to me, is an impressive shift that was glossed over in the research paper.
More milk went in the trash At the end of each meal, students were instructed to pour leftover milk into a bucket where it was later measured using a “reliable visual estimation technique.” According to the findings, milk waste increased by 29.4 percent. But wait just a minute: The researchers didn’t have data on milk waste from the previous year at the 11 Oregon schools, so they used results from five New York City elementary schools (where chocolate milk was still available) as a comparison. Hmmmm.
School lunch participation dropped The number of kids buying school lunch decreased by 6.8 percent after the elimination of chocolate and other flavored milks. But this hardly proves a cause and effect. As the study authors admit, other factors, such as the removal of “bonus items” including cookies, and an increase in meal price, may have come into play. I can’t help but wonder why parents weren’t surveyed to try to determine the real reason for the drop in participation.
Then There’s the Fine Print
The study was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has close ties to MilkPEP, a well-funded marketing group made of up milk processors that is committed to increasing fluid milk consumption. Though the researchers note that the USDA wasn’t involved in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript, it is always important to follow the money trail.
In its email release of the study, the Cornell Food & Brand Lab specifically states, “It is our hope that together we can use this research to support milk sales and consumption among school children.” Even the title of the study–with the use of the word “consequences” and “banning”–plays up the negatives.
And if that isn’t enough to cast doubt on this study, consider this Got Milk? campaign ad featuring Cornell Food and Brand Lab director Brian Wansink:
While I certainly don’t mean to suggest any impropriety, it’s interesting to note that Wansink served as executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion around the time that MilkPEP started a $500,000 to $1M Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign to increase chocolate milk consumption in schools.
Last but not least, the Food and Brand Lab chocolate milk study only lasted one year. What would happen if they gave it more time? Would more kids start choosing and drinking white milk as it gradually became the norm?
Where I Stand On The Chocolate Milk Debate
For the record, I am not anti-milk. My kids drink it (plain, not chocolate). Can it be part of a healthy diet? Absolutely. (Unless, of course, a child has a dairy allergy or is lactose intolerant). Should children be consuming more of it, even if it comes loaded with added sugar and other undesirable ingredients such as artificial flavors and carrageenan?!? It seems the dairy industry is spending a lot of money to have us believe so.
Here’s my two cents:
- While chocolate milk is fine as an occasional treat, drinking it every day of the week seems unwise.
- Kids who eat breakfast and lunch at school may be consuming up to two flavored milks a day, resulting in a considerable amount of added sugars in their diet.
- Offering chocolate and other sugary flavored milks at school, when parents aren’t around to help guide kids on making healthy choices, isn’t the best idea.
- The study highlights the potential economic downsides of eliminating chocolate milk from school cafeterias. Please, let’s make this about kids’ health, not the money!!!
I do appreciate how the study suggests ways to encourage kids to choose white milk over chocolate (rather than removing the chocolate milk altogether). I certainly think this could be something to explore. But as the researchers admit, “While making white milk relatively more convenient, attractive, and normal to choose (relative to chocolate milk) will lead some children to switch from chocolate to white, it will not influence all children.”
Given the obvious flaws in this study, I don’t believe it should serve as evidence for keeping chocolate, strawberry and (yes!) root beer flavored milks in school cafeterias.