THE BLOG
04/23/2014 03:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2014

The Sweet Precedent of Flavored Milk

Being from the great state of Wisconsin, I of course grew up consuming milk. No matter which meal of the day, milk was always offered as a beverage option. If you are able to digest dairy and enjoy the flavor, milk can play an important role in providing nutrition. Nonetheless, most nutrients found in milk are available from plenty of other sources. You can have a healthy diet with or without the consumption of milk. The health issue surrounding milk that I want to address is the process of adding four teaspoons of sugar to milk, while still calling it a "healthy" beverage for children. The main drawback with sweetened milk, commonly referred to as flavored milk, is that it sets the precedent for overly sweet foods.

During my two years of public service through FoodCorps teaching children nutrition education, I experienced firsthand the sweet palettes of modern kids. Items like blueberries and garden fresh tomatoes are now not sweet enough. This sugary preference was often a limitation for them appreciating the average sweetness of fruits and vegetables. Children are learning that this is how food should taste and anything unsweetened is not enjoyable.

If chocolate milk were promoted as a treat, I'd be less concerned. This however is not the case. Too many times, I have walked into a cafeteria and seen posters exclaiming the health benefits of sweetened milk. I would also be less worried if flavored milk was consumed in a context of an overall less sweetened diet. Unfortunately, sugary breakfast cereals, fruit juice, and fruit juice sweetened canned fruit are the current norm for school breakfast and lunch menus. Currently there are no set limits for the amount of sugar for school meals. On average, one 8oz sweetened carton of milk contains 4 teaspoons of added sugar. The consumption of one carton already exceeds the daily sugar allotment recommended for children by the American Heart Association.

The common argument you will hear is that without sweetened varieties kids would not drink milk. As I stated previously, a healthy diet may or may not include milk. Children do not need to consume milk to be healthy. Also, the underlying assumption of sweetened milk is the concept of adding sugar to food until a kid enjoys it. This is a flawed logic and is not preparing students to develop a life long healthy relationship with food.

I'm not arguing for nutrition perfectionism and I strongly believe in enjoying indulgent foods, however, sweetened milk is often consumed on a daily or a twice daily basis. I'm not naïve and have seen how much students prefer sweetened milk. Of all the milk consumed in schools, 71 percent of it is sweetened. I've also read the stories of kids revolting and other issues with the removal of sweetened milk. A recent Cornell University study found that the removal of sweetened milk from schools led to a 8 percent decrease in milk sales and 29 percent of non-sweetened milk to be thrown out. These issues are connected to social norms that start with schools and families, so let's begin to realize that we have the power to change the precedent.

To start the transition to more health promoting social norms, it is important for nutrition programs to promote incremental change. School districts can begin by making sweetened milk less prevalent in the milk cooler and less accessible. School advertisements promoting flavored milk as a healthy choice should be removed. Parents and nutrition education can assist in the promotion of such beverages as treats rather than staples. School food operations can make sweetened milk a dessert and only offer it once a week.

Accordingly, as new generations of children begin school, the option to choose sweetened milk can be slowly limited. Students expect these products because we currently make it socially acceptable to consume them. Children learn our cultural norms and preferences, and currently we are telling them that food has to be overwhelmingly sweet, setting them up for a lifelong preference which could negatively impact their future health.

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