ELIMINATING chocolate milk from schools may decrease the amount of sugar students consume, but it may also eliminate milk from kids' diets entirely.
According to a Cornell University research study conducted by Drs. Andrew Hanks, David Just and Brian Wansink, removing chocolate milk from school lunchrooms resulted in a decline in both milk and lunch sales, and even more important, it also increased milk waste.
"There are bad things that happen when you ban chocolate milk," said study co-author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food & Brand Lab.
Out of concern for the amount of sugar students are consuming, some school districts in the U.S. have chosen to prohibit the sale of flavored milk, which can have up to twice as much sugar as white milk.
On the whole, flavored milk accounts for 68.3% of the milk available in schools, with chocolate being the most popular flavor, at 61% of all milk available (Figure).
Moreover, more than two-thirds of the students participating in the National School Lunch Program chose chocolate milk over white milk because they think it simply tastes better.
In 2011-12, Oregon's school foodservice removed the chocolate milk option for kindergarten through fifth grade in 11 schools within one school district and offered low-fat white milk as an alternative.
The researchers studied the consequences of eliminating chocolate milk from the school menu by collecting daily milk sales and milk waste data over a two-month span.
After the policy change, 90% of the previous chocolate milk sales were replaced with purchases of 1% or skim white milk, which suggests that the majority of students were willing to accept the substitution.
Still, as the results of the study showed, 30 of the 380 students chose to drink no milk, which translated into a 10% drop in overall milk sales across the schools.
However, just purchasing the milk did not guarantee that the children actually drank the lower-calorie white milk.
Hence, during the normal ritual of cleaning plates, the milk waste was collected by cafeteria staff and measured using the quarter-waste method. It was determined that, on average, students threw out 40.9% of the milk selected.
Furthermore, the results were compared to milk waste numbers from schools located in New York City that serve both flavored and unflavored milk (since the study was conducted when the Oregon schools did not offer chocolate milk). In the New York City schools, students wasted an average of 31.7% of the milk they took. Therefore, the researchers conservatively concluded that getting rid of chocolate milk increased milk waste by 29.4%.
Interestingly, according to the study, in the 2011-12 school years during which the Oregon district had banned chocolate milk, the number of meals purchased in the National School Lunch Program was reduced 6.8% from the previous year.
While it could not be determined that the reduction in purchased lunches exclusively resulted from removing flavored milk, it was a major contributing factor.
"It has been found that three out of four kids that eat a school or hot lunch eat better than kids that bring a lunch from home," Wansink explained.
Although most flavored milk contains more grams of sugar and calories than low-fat or skim white milk, it still provides valuable nutrients.
One glass of milk, flavored or unflavored, contains calcium, vitamin D and potassium — three of the four nutrients that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates many Americans do not consume enough of.
Moreover, the amount of fluid milk consumed by Americans overall is declining across all age groups, according to a USDA food intake survey. In fact, over three decades, there was a 25% drop in milk consumption in U.S. adults and teenagers and a 30% decline in consumption for children 2-12 years of age (Feedstuffs, Oct. 21, 2013).
According to the National Dairy Council, previous milk research concluded that children and adolescents who included flavored milk in their daily diets also reported higher total milk intake than those who consumed unflavored milk.
As suggested from the research, the best option for flavored milk lovers is drinking a lower-fat version, especially for kids who are not willing to consume plain white milk. Then, those children won't miss out on the critical nutrients necessary for healthy growth and the brain power it takes to complete a day of school.
Still, the Cornell scientists explained that there are creative means to inspire kids to make white milk their beverage of choice.
"There are other ways to encourage kids to select white milk without banning the chocolate," Wansink said. "Make white milk appear more convenient and more normal to select. Two quick and easy solutions are: Put the white milk in the front of the cooler, and make sure that at least one-third to one-half of all the milk is white."
These simple changes to the milk cooler have been shown to increase the selection of white milk by 30%, Wansink added.
Making white milk an easy-to-reach option is an example of the Cornell Food & Brand Lab's work on "smarter" lunchrooms, which is an effort to encourage kids to make healthier food choices by redesigning school lunchrooms.
Minor lunchroom makeovers that include easy and low-cost changes in presentation and layout can have a large impact on what kids eat.
For example, Wansink explained that placing a bowl of fruit within 2 ft. of the cash register increased fruit sales by 102%.
Likewise, adding an adjective to common vegetable names — such as "crunchy carrot" or "X-ray peas" — and displaying the new name also increased children's selection of the items by 30%.
At the end of the day, these solutions quietly nudge kids toward choosing fruits and vegetables over cookies.
"There are a lot easier solutions (to encourage healthy choices) than regulating what goes on in schools," Wansink concluded.