Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Associated Press' Big Chocolate Milk Fail

The debate rages on

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.


  1. Whatever happened to freedom of choice? Does this freedom not include our children? I am a School Nutrition Director and I am against banning individual food items because of one simple reason: Where does it stop? How many items do we ban until we are left with few options that the children will not eat? We have already worked out agreements with our milk company to give us a chocolate milk product with significantly less sugar and they are switching from high fructose corn syrup to sugar. The focus of the USDA and other governing bodies should be to give us the nutritional standards to operate our programs and let us do so. If you want us to limit sugar, let us do it in the meal pattern as a whole. Most Dietitians will tell you that to cherry pick items or nutrients to ban from a diet is a recipe for failure. What if the various organizations that you contact do not support banning chocolate milk? What if a significant amount of children in Los Angeles quit drinking milk all together because chocolate milk is not available there? Will you give up this crusade? The thing with you and people like Jamie Oliver is that you have great passions but, you aim them at taking away freedom. You could be great allies to school nutrition and to the children themselves if you re-focussed that passion to improving the program as a whole. Work for better, less processed food. Work for more funding. We sincerely need your help but, not like this.

  2. Great comments. Schools are not a freedom of choice environment. Parents can let their kids eat whatever they want outside of school. The issue, as you rightly point out, is sugar, which now has been directly linked with obesity, diabetes and heart disease risk. Kids should not be taught to expect sugar with their food. This is an entirely new development in human evolution--due solely to our processed food culture--and one with dire health consequences, which are already becoming apparent. The USDA does set standards for the school lunch program, which will continue to allow flavored milk. But even groups such as the American Heart Association, which previously did not focus on flavored milk, now say that limits should be placed on the amount of sugar in flavored milk. Most of the world's population gets along just fine without flavored milk. As Walter Willett, head of the nutrition department at Harvard University, has rightly said, milk is not an essential nutrient, as much as the U.S. dairy industry would like us to think so. But if we are going to insist that kids be served milk at school, we should be teaching them to drink the healthier version, the one without sugar.

  3. You may be right that schools are not a freedom of choice environment but, as a parent I don't mind my children drinking flavored milk because they won't drink milk otherwise. I would say that you should not have the right to choose what is best for my child. I am fine with my child drinking it but, because others can not control their own children we must control them all? My kids eat a healthy diet loaded with whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats. They are very active and both at healthy weights. I don't force my kids to eat certain foods and I don't deny them certain foods. I teach them to make proper choices and that is what schools should be doing as well. You are right, kids should not be taught to expect sugar with their food. They should be taught to consume it in moderation. You are inaccurate in saying that the USDA sets standards in that, they Do Not set standards for the amount of sugar that can be served at breakfast or lunch. They do regulate total calories and several other macro and micro nutrients but, not sugar. And, you said yourself that the AHA now says that limits should be placed on the amount of sugar in flavored milk. They are not however, asking for a ban. Milk is not an essential nutrient because it is not a nutrient. Milk is a food product that does contain some essential nutrients. These nutrients could very well be obtained from other sources but, as you said we are required to offer milk with all meals. I would not be opposed to allowing School Food Authorities to offer other beverage options but, that is an entirely different argument.

  4. Thanks very much for your comments. I don't think I've ever said USDA sets standards for the amount of sugar in school food. In fact, I've made a point of saying--repeatedly--the sugar is the one thing USDA should be regulating but doesn't. The American Heart Association agrees. I think if you want to feed your kids chocolate milk, you should do so in the privacy of your own home. The average kid these days is getting 20 percent of her calories from added sugars. That's way too much, and we see the results. There are plenty of other ways to get essential nutrients besides sugary milk. Schools should focus on those, and leave the sugar to parents.