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Just can't swallow the anti-chocolate milk argument

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, September 17, 2010; B01

Forget Fenty vs. Gray, Democrats vs. Republicans or "tea party" vs. everyone. The big debate raging this fall is really chocolate vs. white.

Milk.

Thousands of children across the nation returned to school without the comfort of a carton of cold, chocolate yum on their cafeteria trays thanks to the same thinking that has also robbed them of Halloween candy, dodge ball, knee scrapes on playground asphalt, peanut butter and a suspect grayish matter our cafeteria ladies insisted was "turkey à la king."

In foodie circles, that's being met with all kinds of gush.

That British telly chef Jamie Oliver, who is going around America telling us what slobs we are and teaching us to eat well, recently applauded the D.C. schools' decision to ax chocolate milk in a video extolling the revamping of our school lunches.

Not that the kids at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Northeast give a hoot what Jamie Oliver thinks. All the sixth- and seventh-graders I interviewed lamented the loss of their liquid chocolate fix. They won't drink the white stuff because "it tastes nasty and spoiled," as Torres Young, 12, put it.

The food revolution is hitting school cafeterias hard. In addition to the District, Fairfax County's elementary schools is offering only plain milk this fall. And with our children beginning to resemble an army of tiny, lolling Michelin men, that's a good thing. At least in concept.

But eliminating flavored milk to combat a nation's childhood obesity epidemic has some surprising opponents: parents.

"As far as I'm concerned, chocolate milk is not an indulgence," said Molly Field, a Burke mother of three boys who is fuming at the "draconian" move. Her pediatrician gave a thumbs-up to chocolate milk consumption -- in moderation.

"It's not about politics, really. But let me decide if my kids should be drinking chocolate milk. Not the school," she told me. "Me and some other moms, we're on Facebook, we're writing letters, we're making calls. This is insane."

Her kids' cafeteria also offers cinnamon rolls, baked cheese sticks and marinara sauce filled with high-fructose corn syrup. "You wanna remove corn syrup from the menu? Then do it everywhere! The marinara sauce, the bread that uses it, those cinnamon rolls. Why target the milk?"

I'm sympathetic to the problem. My kids were really good milk drinkers until a little temptress I'll call "Eve" gave one of them a taste of the only kind of milk she would drink: vanilla. It tastes like a melted shake. He turned his back on plain old milk forever.

So now we eat yogurt, cheese, Cheerios with milk, and -- a few times a week -- a cup of that sinful vanilla "Eve" milk, as it's known in our house. I know, bad mommy.

Removing the junk from kids' lunches is smart. We all get that. And sugary drinks are the easiest place to start.

The average carton of 1 percent fat, white milk has about 100 calories. Flavoring it -- kids dig chocolate, vanilla and strawberry these days -- adds about 40 calories and about 10 grams of sugar.

There are all kinds of comparisons the food gurus use to illustrate how evil this is. "It's got as much sugar as Coke!" some say.

Not quite. Because milk is naturally sweet. So the same eight-ounce carton of white milk already has at least 11 grams of sugar. Adding flavoring doubles the sugar, although it's still not the 39 grams you'll find in a can of regular Coke.

The dairy lobby, sensing the growing animosity toward chocolate milk, threw nearly $1 million into an ad campaign to extol the virtues of chocolate milk.

Unlike soda or cinnamon rolls or any of the other sweets that kids confront at lunchtime, flavored milk actually mainlines some of the things kids really do need to grow. It's the old "spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" way of thinking.

And who stands by this realistic way of looking at the issue? None other than the very land that banned trans fats and smoking and is working feverishly on legislation to make frowning illegal: Montgomery County.

"Here's our thinking on it: If we get rid of flavored milk, what's going to happen is milk consumption is going to go down. It's that simple," said Marla Caplon, director of food and nutrition service in Montgomery schools.

Sure enough, looking at the Montgomery stats: 65 percent of kids choose chocolate milk, 20 choose white. (A weird 15 percent get strawberry. I'm sorry, but anything that's the color of the Barbie Corvette should not be on the menu. I never understood strawberry milk.)

Montgomery's compromise was to slim down the flavored-milk choices and make all those fat-free.

In Fairfax, each kid gets the new, no-choice white milk. So the stats suggest that they're all drinking the right stuff. But that's misleading, Field said.

"I saw it. I volunteered at the cafeteria the other day. It's all going in the trash," she told me. "Kids aren't drinking it."

Meanwhile, chocolate milk has suddenly become the drink of choice among gym rats. It's now being hailed as the ultimate post-workout drink -- better than Gatorade -- after an article in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism published a study touting the magic it works on a body burning from too many reps.

The perfect solution? Get the coaches to stand next to the cafeteria ladies: "Atta boy! You want that chocolate milk? On the floor! Gimme a set of 20!"

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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