Milk, the new soft drink.
Flavored, sugared, even carbonated, the dairy drink is being dressed up to make it the cool, more healthful alternative to sugary sodas.
The newcomers in the dairy aisle include Cookies & Cream, Milky Way, 3 Musketeer, Bubble Blast, Starburst, Orange Sparkle and MooBerry. And Nesquik is selling "milkshakes" in vanilla caramel and "s'mores."
For kids who hate milk, the discovery of the newfangled flavors can be a real mouth-opener. "I never would have thought you could have 50 different flavors of milk; I thought it would be the same flavor forever," said Kevin Wilson, 12, who lives in Woodbridge. Kevin has a glass of milk about once every five days; his 10-year-old brother, Kenton, never drinks it, not even the cartons of chocolate milk that come with his school lunch. "I give them away," Kenton said. Both Kevin and Kenton found several of the new flavored versions to their liking.
So did their friend Tyler Mukri, 8, also milk-averse, a discovery that pleased his mother. "Hey, I'd give him any milk he likes," said Sonja Mukri.
That's one of the reasons the beverage industry is jumping on the milk train. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., the bottling arm of the soft-drink giant, announced it had acquired options to buy a majority stake in Bravo Foods International Corp. Bravo is the flavored-milk producer that has teamed up with Mars Inc. to turn its best-selling chocolate bars into liquid candy, so to speak. Coke already sells a flavored-milk drink, Swerve, but it is in limited distribution and only in schools.
Next month, Coke's chief rival, PepsiCo Inc., will begin rolling out Quaker Milk Chillers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region, including the Washington area. The product -- 14-ounce bottles of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla milk -- is targeted at 13- to 24-year-olds for snacks and breakfast. They are the largest segment of flavored-milk drinkers.
"By making milk more indulgent, it will certainly be more appealing to kids," said Laurie Klein, vice president of Just Kid Inc., a Connecticut market research company that develops new product concepts and advises food companies on product lines. The push to sell flavored milk comes during growing concerns about obesity and unhealthy eating, particularly in the case of children, where the incidence of obesity has more than doubled since 1970. For the past two years, health officials have been pressing schools to replace soft drinks sold in vending machines with more healthful options, such as water, fruit juice and milk.
Many nutritionists say flavored milk is a good alternative to soda, even if it contains more sugar than regular white milk. An eight-ounce glass of milk contains about 12 grams of sugar; flavored milk drinks can have 15 to 31 grams. Rachel Brandeis, a registered dietician who lives in Atlanta and serves as a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said she often recommends flavored milk, "especially to moms who can't get their kids to drink milk. . . . Soda doesn't give you any type of added value, only excess calories. Milk, even if flavored, is a good source of calcium, vitamin D and protein."
But some nutritionists are concerned about the high sugar and saturated fat content in some of the flavored varieties, especially since many come in 14- and 16-ounce bottles and are likely to be consumed in one sitting. Nesquik's 16-ounce reduced-fat drink has one of the highest sugar contents. A teen who polishes off the whole drink would get 320 calories and 60 grams of sugar, compared with 250 calories and 67 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle of several popular non-diet sodas. But the strawberry drink also provides about 80 percent of the government's suggested daily calcium requirement. "We like to look at things holistically," said Joanne Crawford, a Nesquik spokeswoman. The drink "may have almost as much sugar as soda, but look at all of its other nutritional benefits."
Nesquik's 16-ounce strawberry drink, made with 2 percent milk, also contains 6 grams of saturated fat. "One of the few redeeming characteristics of soda is that it doesn't contain saturated fat," said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an activist nonprofit group that has fought against the sale of soda and chips in schools and called for restrictions on kid-targeted food advertising.
In 2003, the average American drank 35.3 gallons of non-diet soft drinks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, compared with 21.6 gallons of milk.
Sales of plain white milk -- whole, reduced-fat and skim -- have been dropping since 1945, USDA figures show. Then, the average American drank 40.4 gallons a year, compared with only four-fifths of a gallon of flavored milk.
Since then, white milk consumption has dropped by more than half, to 19.7 gallons per capita in 2003. While that still vastly outweighs flavored-milk consumption of 1.67 gallons per capita, flavored-milk consumption has been steadily increasing since 1990.
According to Bravo chief executive Roy G. Warren, the flavored-milk industry has grown from about $750 million in 1995 to $2 billion in 2004. His own company had $3.3 million in revenue last year. This year, he said, he expects sales to be at least $13 million. If Coke exercises its options and buys a majority stake in his company, sales would increase to well over $20 million, he said.
Warren attributes the growing sales of flavored milk to the advent of single-serve, resealable plastic bottles, which not only make milk more convenient for consumers, but are also easier for distributors to ship. The bottles have extended the product's shelf life, and some types allow the product to be transported in non-refrigerated trucks before the milk is chilled in the dairy aisle.
Yet flavored milk is not a guaranteed success.
Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, the maker of Dr Pepper and 7 UP, rolled out five flavors of Raging Cow in early 2003, only to stop making it a year later. Greg Artkop, a company spokesman, said that while the drink was "met favorably by consumers, the company opted to go in a different direction."
Meanwhile, Coke spokesman Ray Crockett said Swerve "has not met our expectations." Two of its flavors -- "vanana" and "blooo" -- have been discontinued; chocolate is still for sale.
Similarly, sales of 80 'N Sunny, an 80-calorie milk and fruit juice blend made by Dean Foods Co., are not doing as well as the company had hoped, said Dave Haley, director of marketing for the Midwest.
However, Haley said, the company made a surprising discovery in its push to sell the drink to kids. "We thought it was for 6- to 14-year-olds, but we're finding moms like it."
Despite these struggles, John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, said he expects flavored-milk sales to grow as consumers become acquainted with the product. "Consumers are accustomed to drinking chilled milk from a carton," Sicher said. "That will change slowly, as the beverage companies make consumers understand what these new products are."
Editorial assistant Terri Sapienza contributed to this story.