Schools across the country are getting tough on a chocolate beverage. Pressure from parents has led some schools to pull chocolate milk from its food service programs, but some experts contend that's the wrong move.
On any given day, chocolate milk is most definitely the beverage of choice at Mount Horeb Intermediate Center. Roughly 91 percent of children in the school drink chocolate milk at lunch time, according to the district's food service director, Michelle Denk. That translates into about 1,300 cartons a day. District-wide, more than 3,000 cartons of chocolate milk are consumed daily, she said.
While it's a popular beverage, chocolate has recently gotten a bad rap. In the last year, schools across the country battled with the question: Is chocolate milk good for you?
Some districts pulled chocolate milk from its menus because of concerns raised by parents and children's health advocates.
In Mount Horeb, parental pressure forced the district to temporarily pull chocolate milk from the breakfast program for grades kindergarten through second. The result was one food service leaders didn't like.
"We saw a sharp decline in some of the grades with milk," Denk said. "They're not drinking the milk at all."
Laura Wilford, a registered dietitian with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, said that type of response has been seen nationwide. It is Wilford's job to promote the consumption of milk, and she believes the chocolate beverage has been unfairly targeted.
"Chocolate milk has the same exact nutrients as white milk," Wilford said. "It just has a little added sugar and about 30 extra calories so, depending on your child, and your preference, you can make that choice if you would like to."
Wilford said in the last year or so, milk producers have responded to parent concerns, and have cleaned up calories and sugar content in the embattled beverage. Dean Foods, for example, recently released TruMoo -- a chocolate milk blend with no high fructose corn syrup. The fat-free version has about 20 fewer calories than its 1 percent chocolate milk.
Wilford said that milk, even with chocolate, is getting kids the nutrients they need -- that they might otherwise not get.
"They're more likely to drink milk, they're less likely to drink other sweetened beverages," Wilford said. "And they're getting the same nutrients as white milk. It is a good choice if your child can afford those calories."
So, is chocolate milk healthy? If your children won't drink regular milk, experts say yes.
"It has a little less calories than juice would have, and it also has protein, calcium, and vitamin D," Denk said. "So it's a very nutritious beverage as well as a nutritious snack. I feel like it's a nutritious substitute."
Substitute is the key word. Experts, including dietitians with no connection to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, said chocolate milk is indeed a great substitute for chocolate milk, but add that regular, white milk would be best -- that is, if your kids will drink it.
The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board was recently publicly criticized for claims it made about milk's health benefits. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism questioned the research behind claims the WMMB posted on its website. Specifically, the journalists challenged the milk board's claims that three servings of low-fat dairy a day helped with weight loss. Last month, the WMMB removed the claim but the board still maintains that dairy should be a part of a health diet.
The sweet beverage is also getting attention among athletes.
Some coaches and strength experts have started offering low-fat chocolate milk to athletes as a recovery drink. The University of Wisconsin's John Dettman -- a strength coach for the Badgers -- said the athletic department has been giving the chocolate drink to athletes for years.
"If you can get past the idea that there's a lot of sugar in chocolate milk -- and there is -- but it's necessary in recovery," Dettmann said. "You need simple sugars to recover from an exercise in that short, 30-minute window following that activity."