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Heart Association Says Too Much Chocolate Milk a Health Risk

May 24th, 2011 · 10 Comments · Posted in kids, school food

This may be dangerous for kids' health

The U.S. dairy industry spends millions trying to convince parents that medical professionals are firmly behind feeding kids milk spiked with sugar as a healthful way to deliver calcium and Vitamin D. Dairy interests pay for “research” that conveniently delivers the message that chocolate milk is a better choice than Coke. Proxies such as the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association then make sweeping statements implying that physicians approve kids drinking unlimited amounts of milk that tastes like candy.

It’s all part of a well-oiled public relations campaign that deftly obscures the truth about how various medical groups approach sugar in food. The dairy industry has a lot riding on keeping things murky: For decades, milk sales have been plummeting, but sales of flavored milk have tripled. It would be very helpful indeed if the nation’s medical doctors all stood  behind the dairy industry’s campaign to put a carton of chocolate milk on every kid’s cafeteria tray.

In this first report on the actual policies of various medical groups the dairy industry calls allies, I look at how the American Heart Association, once pre-occupied with the fat Americans eat, is now focused on the risks of heart disease and other dangers posed by the excessive amounts of sugar we and our children consume–including flavored milk.

Read closely and you may find that your child already is drinking more chocolate milk at school than the heart association thinks wise.

In 2009, the heart association issued guidelines on sugar urging that men consume no more than 150 calories worth of “added sugar” daily, and women no more than 100. To put that into perspective, 150 calories of sugar represents the amount in 10 teaspoons, or a bit less than the sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.

The heart association reasons that Americans already eat too much and exercise too little. We therefore have little room for “discretionary” calories in the form of sugar, which has no nutritional value. If you are an average sort of guy, consider that can of Coke your entire allotment of sugar for the day.

In January of this year, the association in its journal Circulation published an article identifying cardio-vascular risks for adolescents who eat too much sugar. A third of all U.S. children are overweight or obese. On average they get more than 21 percent of their calories from “added” sugars, meaning sugars that don’t occur naturally in food–such as the sugar in an apple–but are put there by the food industry to sell product. (Manufacturers aren’t required to identify how much sugar they’ve added to prepared foods, but consumers can get a fair idea by reading ingredient and nutrition labels carefully.)

A detailed survey of 2157 adolescents aged 12 to 18, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in the years 1999 to 2004, revealed that sugar consumption was positively correlated with several key risks of cardio-vascular disease, including increased triglyceride levels, suppressed HDL (“good” cholesterol) and elevated LDL (“bad” cholesterol). Researchers pointed to an emerging body of science linking sugar and refined carbohydrates with these and other health risks, such as insulin resistance–a precursor to diabetes–and increased fat production by the liver. They said the federal government’s position on sugar was out of date.

“In 1986, the Sugars Task Force of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a review of the research then available and concluded that there was no conclusive evidence of an association between sugar consumption and (cardio-vascular disease) or its risk factors,” the researchers said. “Since then, the results of several new epidemiological studies and short- and long-term experimentsal studies have provided more evidence linking the intake of carbohydrates and sugars (particularly fructose) and increased risk of (cardio-vascular disease). And importantly, consumption of added sugars has risen substantially since the research reviewed in the Sugar Task force report was done.”

According to the heart association, no more than half of discretionary calories–those beyond what are needed to provide proper nutrition–should be consumed as sugar. For children, figuring out what that means can be tricky, since kids come in all shapes and sizes and have different energy and nutritional needs depending on how old and how active they are. Along with its “food pyramid,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published a chart indicating the discretionary calorie allowances for children of different age and activitiy levels.

For instance, an 11-year-old girl who gets less than 30 minutes worth of “moderate exercise” most days would be allowed 130 discretionary calories. According to the heart association, only half of those–65–should come from sugar. By comparison, a typical eight-ounce serving of chocolate milk contains 14 grams of added sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which translates as 3.5 teaspoons or 52.5 calories.

This girl might well have a container of chocolate milk for breakfast. But a second container at lunch would put her 40 calories over her sugar limit–and that represents all the sugar the heart association thinks she should be eating the entire day. In other words, no cupcake at her classmate’s birthday party, no soda on the way home, no ice cream for dessert after dinner, no sucking on a lollipop while watching television.

By contrast, a 16-year-old boy who is very active–meaning he gets at least 60 minutes worth of moderate physical activity most days–would be entitled to 650 discretionary calories, half of those–325–from sugar. That represents a much bigger flavored milk allowance–more than six eight-ounce cartons of chocolate milk.

The point is that millions of children already are drinking too much flavored milk at school. Some are taking it at breakfast, lunch and in supper programs–three times a day–then stopping at a convenience store for a 24-ounce Coke containing 290 calories worth of high-fructose corn syrup to drink on the way home. Is it any wonder kids are obese?

The heart association recommends that Americans limit their consumption of sugary beverages–including sodas, sports drinks and ice teas–to no more than 36 ounces per week.

In April of this year, the association urged the USDA to impose a limit on the amount of sugar in school food, something the agency in all the rules and regulations governing the school meals program has never attempted before. The heart association suggests that new school meal guidelines, now pending, should restrict a single serving  of milk to 130 calories or less to hold down the sugar content, and cereal to no more than 7 grams of total sugar. (A 1.25-ounce serving of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran contains 11 grams of sugar.)

The association says it is disappointed the USDA would allow schools to serve half of all fruit portions as juice. Too much sugar. It would rather schools serve exclusively whole fruit.

“It just makes sense if you’re asking the American public to reduce sugars you wouldn’t add more sugar than needed to flavored milk,” said heart association science advisor Dorothea Vafiadis. “There has to be a limit.”

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  • Ivana Kadija

    As always, Ed… very thorough research and nicely written for the layman. This blog post will be flying around Charlottesville today and will be referenced in the Charlottesville School Health Advisory Boards recommended Wellness Policy regulations being submitted at the end of the week.

    I hope you’ll be addressing the Dairy Board’s calcium argument next.

  • Bettina at The Lunch Tray


    Thanks for your usual detailed, in-depth reporting. I think we’d all agree with the AHA’s recommendation on lowering overal sugar consumption, including the sugar in flavored milk.

    But I noted that it did NOT ask for a ban on flavored milk altogether, which is in line with what I was saying in my piece on this topic, the one you and I debated a bit in the comments section: “My Problem with Jamie Oliver’s War on Chocolate Milk”

  • Ed Bruske

    Actually, Bettina, what the health association proposes–if you read closely–is that every parent individually evaluate their child to determine how much sugar they should be consuming each day and whether flavored milk fits at all into their “discretionary calorie” budget. It would not be realistic to expect a politically sensitive organization like the heart association to call for an outright ban on falvored milk. But what they are saying is that the milk currently being served daily in schools is too sugary, and that millions of kids routinely drink too much flavored milk at school. I don’t think there is any way you can address these multiple issues in the lunch line, which makes this perhaps the best argument yet for ditching flavored milk altogether in schools and letting parents deal with it at home.

  • Karen

    What the article says, is if the kid is getting an adequate amount of exercise, there is no issue with the chocolate milk. The issue is overall lifestyle, not chocolate milk. Your title is very skewed and does not accurately reflect the content of the article. Added sugar is the issue, not any one food item. Focus on helping the schools get more funding from the USDA so that ALL schools can afford the food that Alic Water’s serves. Not just the ones that can afford a subsidy of $600,000 from the General Fund and multiple grants!

  • Ed Bruske

    Karen, in fact the heart association talks out of both sides of its mouth. Yes, they says discretionary calories are an issue that probably precludes millions of kids from drinking flavored milk in the quantities it is being served in school meals. Beyond that, sugar is its own category with its own health risks.

  • Ivana Kadija

    Karen and Ed, all of these “health”organizations talk out of both sides of their mouths. There is a lot money at stake here.

    But, let’s use our common sense and, for a minute, set aside our need to have the feds, the state or some national organization tell us what is right or wrong. We have been following their advise for the last 30 years and look where it got us!

    We have doubled consumption of sugars since the 70s (see USDA consumption data). The only other food item that has gone up significantly is cooking/salad oil. During that time we have gotten fatter and sicker. Sugar is pervasive in our society and in our schools, and not just in the cafeteria.

    there is no money in most schools to do anything remotely like what Alice Water’s is doing in Berkley. We need to start by looking at how we are spending the money we currently have at our disposal – 90 cents in charlottesville for lunch. Fruit juice is 12 cents, chocolate milk 22. That’s over 30% of the total budget for that meal. And what are the kids getting nutritionally… a very few minerals and vitamins that have not been proven to actually get absorbed by the body and 6.5 teaspoons of sugar.

    What if we served water in (horrors) a disposable plastic cup (say 2 cents a piece) and then spent the other 32 cents on a decent protein (not meat patties that are 1/3 extruded soy and contain 1/2 tsp of sugar), fat (something with Omega 3 would be a godsend for America’s poorest children), vegetable (perhaps one that is not cooked to the point of being inedible) or fruit (a decent local apple can be as much as 24 cents, never mind the labor to wash and cut the thing for the wee ones in pre-k).

    This coming school year the USDA is requiring that water be made available in school cafeterias. there is hope maybe that we won’t be force feeding milk to kids… especially not that low-fat swill that has been linked to weight gain. Even if not, I figure we can take the 12 cents from the juice (foregoing the minuscule amount of potassium) and the 6 cents that the feds are giving us and make some one or two items on that lunch tray actually – nutritious.

    The kids are hungry for it.

  • Helen Flora

    It is not up to Mrs. Obama and some health organization to monitor the sugar intake of our children, it should be the parents. Are there any other rights that the government plans to take away????? I am thinking maybe we should live in a 3rd world country, by the time the Obamas get done with this country, 3rd world countries will have more freedom and liberties than we will.

  • Ed Bruske

    But isn’t it helpful, Helen, to have an organization like the American Heart Association give parents some guidance as to what is a healthful level of sugar intake? And how does Michelle Obama enter the equation here? In either case, you’re still free to kill your kids with as much sugar as you like. This really sounds like an ad hominem attack to me.

  • Dee

    It’s scary how much sugar our kids are consuming. I have one child, a 4 year old boy, and he’s the only kid I personally know who doesn’t consume a large portion of their daily calories in the form of sugar. Sugar is so ingrained into our culture that I have actually had people tell me that my son is being mistreated because I’m strict with his diet and limit sugary treats. Yes, I was actually called a bad parent because I would not allow him to have a Pepsi at a family gathering.

    I do think its the governments job to protect our kids when parents refuse. I don’t understand the whole “they are my children and I will feed them whatever I want no matter how unhealthy” argument. Child Protective Services steps in when a child is being physically abused, so why shouldn’t children who are being nutritionally abused be protected as well?

    I’m not saying a kid should never have sugar, once a week I will make a dessert like brownies or something and while it’s no way healthy, at least it’s homemade from the highest quality organic ingredients. But there is a huge difference between an occasional sugary treat versus raising a child on mostly high calorie, nutritionally devoid foods. I wish more people would realize the profound importance of healthy eating, especially to a growing child. I know so many people who just laughs it off and that puzzles me…your child’s health is not a joking matter. Meanwhile I see people wonder why their kids are sick all the time and never once to they link their child’s diet to their health. The whole thing just saddens me. No parent is perfect, but when someone doesn’t even make an attempt to feed their child right then yes, it is time for health organizations to step in and start advocating for the children.

  • Gabriella Lukin

    I think that is a good idea chocolate milk should not be served in school it is a risk to your health.