By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
An Associate Press report last week on the controversy surrounding flavored milk in schools was widely reprinted in media outlets across the country, from the Washington Post to Huffington Post to Yahoo! In it, the AP declared that a number of professional and medical groups--including the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics--had issued a "joint statement" in favor of flavored milk, arguing that "the nutritional value of flavored low-fat or skim milk outweighs the harm of added sugar."
There's just one problem with the story: no such "joint statement" was ever issued. The AP is simply the latest victim of a well-oiled dairy industry propaganda campaign designed to fend off efforts to remove chocolate milk from school cafeterias. Not only did the medical groups AP mentioned never issue a statement supporting dairy's claims, some have come out squarely against the practice of routinely feeding kids milk tarted up with sugar.
Meanwhile, two of the organizations cited in the AP story as favoring flavored milk--the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association--are hardly impartial. They both have financial ties to the dairy industry and have been aiding industry efforts to keep chocolate milk in the lunch line. The National Dairy Council and the Milk Processors Education Program--or MilkPEP, an industry group that engineers media efforts such as the "Got Milk?" campaign--are both dues-paying "patrons" of the School Nutrition Association. Dairy has a seat on the SNA's "industry advisory board." Likewise, the National Dairy Council is a "sponsor" of the American Dietetic Association, which has similar arrangements with Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Kellogg's and school food service provider Aramark.
As I reported previously, the School Nutrition Association, representing thousands of the nation's school food service directors, last year worked closely with its dairy patrons to promote a "study" paid for by dairy interests that purports to show many kids will not drink milk if it isn't flavored. None of this was mentioned in the the Associated Press report.
When I contacted the Associated Press about getting a copy of the "joint statement" it cited, I received an e-mail from AP reporter Christina Hoag containing her correspondence with School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner. In that exchange, Heavner linked to an April 13 SNA policy statement on flavored milk echoing the dairy industry's campaign language:
"Leading health and nutrition organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association, the National Medical Association, and School Nutrition Association, have all expressed their support for low-fat and fat-free milk in schools, including flavored milk. The groups cited studies demonstrating that children who drink flavored milk meet more of their nutrient needs; do not consume more added sugar, fat or calories; and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers."
When I asked Heavner if she knew of a "joint statement" issued by the groups cited by AP, she referred me to a nearly two-year-old press release issued by the American Dietetic Association using uncannily similar verbiage:
"Leading health and nutrition organizations – including the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, National Hispanic Medical Association, National Medical Association and School Nutrition Association – recognize the valuable role that low-fat or fat-free milk, including flavored milk, can play in meeting daily nutrient needs, and helping kids get the daily servings of milk recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans...Studies have shown that children who drink flavored milk meet more of their nutrient needs; do not consume more added sugar, fat or calories; and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers."
Not surprisingly, the "studies" referred to by the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association were funded by the dairy industry. As I have reported elsewhere, dairy interests have created a kind of public relations echo chamber, using paid proxies to repeat the messages that emerge from "research" dairy pays for, all in an effort to convince parents, pediatricians and school food service directors that removing flavored milk from schools would pose dire health consequences for children.
When I asked the American Heart Association about the release issued by the American Dietetic Association, and whether the heart association had ever been involved in a "joint statement," spokeswoman Kanika Lewis said: "From what I understand, ADA used our science for the argument, but we didn't actually sign off on it."
Citing a growing body of science showing strong links between sugar and risks for heart disease, the American Heart Association has asked the USDA to impose a limit on the amount of sugar that can be served in school meals. Regarding flavored milk specifically, the assocation has told the USDA that new meal guidelines should restrict to 130 the number of calories in an eight-ounce serving of milk as a way of reducing the amount of sugar children are exposed to in the federally-subsidized meal program.
Likewise, the American Academy of Family Physicians lists flavored milk along with sodas and sports drinks as "unhealthy habits to avoid," and advises that "children should have no more than one 12-ounce serving of these types of drinks each day."
Millions of parents rely on medical authorities for advice on whether they should offer flavored milk to their children as a way of providing calcium and Vitamin D. The last thing they need is misleading information about the dietary habits medical organizations actually recommend. In my next report, I will attempt to get those various medical organizations to state exactly what their positions are.