Come January, school cafeterias in Montgomery County will be missing the pinkest offering of the lunch line. Strawberry-flavored milk is on its way out.

The drink is not as popular as chocolate milk and not as nutritious as plain milk, officials say. So at a time of growing concern about healthy foods for children, the pink milk has lost its place on refrigerated shelves in Maryland’s largest school system.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Marla R. Caplon, Montgomery’s director of food and nutrition services, who thought long and hard about the value of flavored milk and concluded amid parents’ concerns that she could no longer make the case for strawberry. “Milk is not naturally pink. There are artificial colors and there are preservatives in the milk, and in wanting to do the best for the kids, strawberry really isn’t necessary.”

This is no small change.

In a single-month snapshot of milk consumption, Montgomery’s students got 229,818 half-pints of strawberry milk in October — equivalent to 14,363 gallons — nearly 18 percent of all student milk servings.

A half pint of strawberry milk is seen at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda. Montgomery County school cafeterias plan to banish strawberry milk from school cafeterias by January. The bright pink bottles have been a familiar part of lunch lines at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda and other Montgomery schools in recent years. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)

By comparison, unflavored milk accounted for 15 percent of the half-pints that month, and chocolate milk was an overwhelming crowd-pleaser: Students had more than 882,000 plastic bottles of chocolate milk, 67 percent of the total.

With that kind of following, chocolate milk would be hard to eliminate, Caplon said.

“We know that if flavored milk is eliminated, then fewer students will consume milk, and that is a concern,” she said, especially for older children, who she says are less likely to drink unflavored milk. “There are students that are going to be disappointed, but I believe that a student who would normally take strawberry milk will take chocolate milk.”

In Montgomery, strawberry milk has been around for the past five or six years, and the school system has offered chocolate milk since the 1970s. Last week, at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda, students were sipping both flavors.

The sugar profile of the two flavored drinks is similar. Both have 120 calories and more than 20 grams of sugar per eight ounces. But strawberry milk includes an artificial red coloring that has stirred concern among some parents.

Lisa Y. Lefferts, a senior scientist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said studies suggest that Red 40 and other artificial colorings could be linked to hyperactivity in certain children. Lefferts gives the pink drink a thumbs-down.

“There’s no strawberries in strawberry milk,” Lefferts said. “There’s just a lot of red dye and sugar. . . . It’s fooling you into thinking it’s strawberries when it’s not.”

The milk industry views the strawberry drink differently.

Jody Vona, president of Dairy Maid Dairy of Frederick, Md., which supplies milk to schools in Montgomery and four other Maryland school districts, called strawberry milk a healthy choice and said his regulatory staff says the artificial coloring is harmless.

Vona said the U.S. Agriculture Department “would not allow it to be in a food product if it was harmful.” Vona said many school systems have embraced strawberry milk.

“For a lot of kids that don’t like chocolate, this gave them an alternative flavor,” he said, adding that he does not understand why strawberry milk would be singled out for removal. “I can’t imagine any beverage that would have more benefits for young bone-developing children than milk.”

Prince William County schools added strawberry milk about a year ago, and officials said they have seen a 10 percent overall increase in milk consumption.

In Alexandria and Prince George’s County, the milk lineup is similar to Montgomery’s: nonfat strawberry and nonfat chocolate, with plain milk offered both in nonfat and 1-percent varieties. Loudoun County’s flavored milk is offered as low-fat strawberry and low-fat chocolate, officials said.

Strawberry milk is not part of cafeteria fare in Arlington and Fairfax counties or in D.C. public schools, officials said. Fairfax County discontinued serving strawberry milk more than a decade ago.

Caplon said her decision was partly in response to nutrition concerns raised by a variety of parents, including an advocacy group, Real Food for Kids - Montgomery.

“It was a wonderful surprise,” said Lindsey Parsons, co-founder of the group, which has testified before Montgomery’s school board in recent months and was preparing to wage a campaign against strawberry milk. “We’re happy. Very happy.”

The group hailed the victory on its Web site: “We say good riddance to the pink milk, and hello to calmer, better behaved children ready to learn!”

Allyson Piazza, president of the PTA at Montgomery County’s Takoma Park Elementary School, was thrilled to hear about the demise of strawberry milk. As the parent of a first-grader, she had read the label of strawberry milk with concern — high fructose corn syrup, Red 40, artificial strawberry flavor — and warned her daughter against pink milk. She says she recently let parents know in a PTA newsletter that they could ask administrators to ensure that their children did not get flavored milk at lunch.

“I’m so relieved,” Piazza said. “I feel normal plain milk is sufficient, and that’s what kids should be offered.”