Parent groups have a cow over campaign pushing chocolate milk as 'health food'

When it comes to comfort foods, chocolate milk ranks right up there with meatloaf and mac n' cheese. But a campaign to market the sweetened milk as a healthy choice for kids is leaving parent groups anything but comforted.

As we know, sugar may be a huge contributor to our obesity crisis and other chronic diseases. The American Heart Association in fact recently recommended children limit their intake of sugar to 16 grams a day. The association might, then, be surprised that pediatricians, dietitians, celebrities and a whole social media campaign are fighting the good fight for chocolate milk, calling it a healthy choice for kids.

How much added sugar, you ask, does eight ounces of chocolate milk contain? Four teaspoons, 16 grams, making one serving the maximum a child should consume every day.
In the backdrop of the sugary-foods news over the past month, the Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign seems ill-advised. Just last week, Kellogg (K) was induced to pull labels with claims that its cereal boosted immunity after an outcry. An industry-sponsored label icon claiming sugary cereals such as Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch were "Smart Choices" was dropped by the industry itself after consumer groups pointed out that these cereals were as much as 50% sugar.

In the past few decades, food makers seem to have been asking themselves the question "without sugar, would kids eat anything?" And based on the types of products they've released, it seems they're arrived at "of course not" as their answer. It's been the same response to rising criticism of how added sweetener affects the nation's health. But with forecasts that one in three Americans will suffer from diabetes in their lifetime, it may be time to look at things a little differently.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned it is planning to introduce a red light/green light-style package front labeling requirement that would indicate when foods were unhealthy. Food writers including Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have become minor celebrities in the past year, inveighing against processed foods and those with added sugar. Were I sitting in the advisor's chair, I'd suggest now is the worst possible time to present any sugary food as a healthy choice.

I was not one of the experts the National Dairy Council consulted. In a highly-produced Youtube video embedded on the Raise Your Hand website, everyone says that chocolate milk is nutritious, and kids love it! Looking desperately happy, stars (and parents) including Rebecca Romijn, Angie Harmon and Cristian de la Fuentes (Mary's fiancé in In Plain Sight) explain that it has all the nutrients that "white milk" has, and that it encourages children to drink milk. You're encouraged to raise your hand, too, signing a petition on Facebook, signing up for email updates.

But the proponents of chocolate milk have a formidable foe: parent groups who have worked to ban chocolate milk on school lunch lines. These moms and dads have decided that offering chocolate milk will give children license to choose that over the blandly named "white" version that includes no added sugar and all the same nutrients that chocolate milk does.

The "renegade lunch lady" in Boulder, Colo., Ann Cooper has gotten chocolate milk banned, arguing that the daily four teaspoons of sugar could add up to five pounds of unhealthy weight gain a year. With around 20% of kids overweight -- and predictions that another 10% or 20% will be joining their obese friends on the march toward diabetes, heart disease and a raft of other possible negative health outcomes in the next several years -- these five pounds are too many.

Chocolate milk lovers worldwide dismiss the anti-chocolate milk sentiment as something between an annoyance and an assault on baseball and apple pie. "Kids drink it," they keep saying, "kids like it." The subtext: otherwise they'd drink something like Sunny Delight, or soda, with 20 to 25 teaspoons of sugar per eight-ounce serving (and, typically consumed in 12-ounce portions). And the nutrients in milk, including calcium, Vitamin A and potassium, are among those which are often deficient among children.

School nutrition workers outside of Boulder have long defended chocolate milk, arguing that children drink less milk when flavored milk is removed (interestingly, chocolate milk is known as "flavored" and not "sweetened" milk in the media and research reports); as much as 50% less for middle- and high-schoolers. There is no data, however, on whether soda and fruit juices were also removed, leading this mother to believe that, were milk the only choice of beverage beside water, there would be little reduction in milk consumption.

When a friend in Portland, Ore. asked the public school nutrition services department why we still serve chocolate milk here, a spokesperson replied that, first, moms like it; according to one survey (conducted by the Dairy Council), 73% of moms would be upset if it were eliminated. And second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that schools offer at least two types of milk.

Chocolate milk has far more supporters than foes, if the people in the dairy industry are to be believed. Far more resources and pretty celebrities are certainly on the side of flavored (and sweetened) milk.

But science and epidemiology, were the two disciplines to be consulted without the help of packaged food and big agriculture interests, would probably argue that the chocolate and sugar in chocolate milk are unnecessary -- even harmful -- additions that don't do anything to promote good health in children.

I'm not raising my hand for chocolate milk. My hand, in fact, now looks something more like a shaking fist.
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