No Chocolate Milk? Kids Get Used to Plain Milk, UConn Study Finds

There’s good news and bad news for chocolate milk advocates, depending upon which University of Connecticut research study you come across.  The studies don’t necessarily conflict, but provide differing points of view in the plain milk vs. chocolate milk debate. A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut has found that most students adjust to drinking plain milk after flavored milk is removed from school lunch menus.

Flavored milk served in the National School Lunch Program contains up to 10 grams of added sugar per serving, which is 40 percent of a child’s daily allowance of added sugar. Given the nation’s key public health target of limiting added sugars in children’s diets, flavored milk has come under scrutiny in the context of school nutrition, UConn Today recently reported.

The study, published in July in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, measured plain milk selection and consumption in the years after flavored milk was removed in two schools. Key findings include:

  • The first school year after flavored milk was removed, 51.5 percent of students selected milk and drank 4 ounces per carton, indicating school-wide per-student consumption of 2.1 ounces.
  • Two years later, 72 percent of students selected milk and drank 3.4 ounces per carton, significantly increasing the school-wide per-student consumption to 2.5 ounces.
  • Older students and boys consumed significantly more milk.
  • The availability of 100 percent fruit juice at lunch was associated with a significant decrease in students selecting milk and lower milk consumption per carton throughout the years of the study. Both years, student selection and consumption of plain milk dropped significantly on days when 100 percent fruit juice was also available.

The study could have implications for school nutrition policy and efforts to reduce added sugars in children’s diets. The study was conducted in two elementary (K-8) schools in an urban New England school district during the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 school years. Researchers assessed the selection and consumption of milk immediately after flavored milk was removed in the 2010-2011 school year, and two years later in the 2012-2013 school year.

“The decision to remove flavored milk has both nutritional benefits and potential costs. It is clearly an effective way to lower student intake of added sugars at lunch, and over time, the majority of students will switch to plain milk,” said Marlene Schwartz, professor of human development and family studies, director of the UConn Rudd Center, and lead author of the study. “However, there will always be some students who don’t like plain milk. The challenge is finding a way to meet their dietary needs by providing other nutrient-rich options at lunch.”

The study was funded by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and the Rudd Foundation.  In the conclusion to the study, the researchers note that “A school policy to remove flavored milk has potential public health benefits and costs—it is likely to decrease consumption of added sugars at lunch for all children, but it is also likely to decrease consumption of milk for some children and increase their risk of missing key nutrients.”

Seven years ago, another UConn researcher was touting the virtues of chocolate milk.  That study, centered in Professor Nancy R. Rodriguez’s lab, found that drinking a 16-ounce glass of fat-free chocolate milk after exercise gives the body essential proteins and carbohydrates that help refuel weary muscles better than a beverage containing carbohydrates alone.

Rodriguez, with joint appointments in the departments of kinesiology and allied health – and who serves, then and now, as UConn’s director of sports nutrition – advocated for the benefits of milk in relation to athletic performance since the late 1990’s. But the 2010 study believed to be the first study of its kind showing a direct correlation between consuming chocolate milk and improved muscle recovery after prolonged exercise.

Results showed that chocolate milk was as effective as the carbohydrate drink in replenishing the body’s stores of glycogen, a form of carbohydrate the body uses as fuel during intense or prolonged exercise. Rodriguez said at the time that the sugar from the chocolate syrup in the milk helps athletes replace depleted glycogen in their muscles to prepare them for their next workout.

Rodriguez subsequently served on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition (PCFSN), 2014-2017. She has been a Sports Nutritionist for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and has provided services to the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats, and the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack.

The 2010 study was funded by the National Dairy Council and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board.