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Sugar in flavored milk at school an issue for some
2.5 teaspoons of sugar added to vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors
Karlea Langford, 8, drinks a carton of milk Wednesday during lunch at Riverbend Elementary School in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When you give a kid a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chances are he'll want a carton of milk to go with it.

When kids are faced with that choice at school, they're more likely to pick up a carton of chocolate milk than regular, a choice at the center of recent debate.

"I think they shouldn't have flavored milk options," said Jessica Wade, a parent at World Language Academy. "Once I found out, (my kids and I) had a talk about how that wasn't the most nutritious decision. ... I've tried to tell them to drink the skim milk, but as long as it's not flavored, it's OK."

School nutrition officials, however, say it's necessary to offer chocolate, strawberry and vanilla milk alongside the unflavored skim and 1 percent options.

"One of our parents loves to go around and around with us in the milk debate, and I say, ‘Until the research shows if you take the flavored milk away and kids will still consume it, we're going to keep offering all five flavors,'" said Hillary Savage, director of school nutrition and wellness for Hall County Schools.

What the research shows now, Savage said, is that no flavored milk means many students may drink no milk at all.

A 2010 study conducted by Prime Consulting Group showed that when flavored milk was limited or eliminated, milk consumption during school lunch decreased by 35 percent, according to documents from the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association.

"They're going to lose the potential to consume really good nutrients like protein, calcium, vitamins A and D. ... All those are essential nutrients for children," said Tiffany Lommel, food service director for Gainesville City Schools. "If they're not going to drink the milk, they're going to have to get those nutrients from other sources, which in this day is really difficult."

According to documents from the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, 8 ounces of milk gives kids as much calcium as 10 cups of raw spinach and as much vitamin D as three-fourths ounces of cooked salmon.

Hall schools sell five varieties of Mayfield Dairy Farms' TruMoo milk, while students in Gainesville schools have a choice of four Flavor Rich cartons.

Strawberry and chocolate milk in Gainesville and Hall schools have the same nutrition content.

Gainesville does not sell vanilla milk. Regular skim and 1 percent milk in both school systems are also similar, give or take a few grams of sugar and protein.

Fat-free skim milk has between 80 and 90 calories per serving and 12 to 13 grams of carbohydrates.

One percent milk has between 100 and 110 calories and the same carbohydrate content.

All varieties of the flavored milk in local schools have 130 calories and 23 grams of carbohydrates.

They have the same protein, calcium and vitamin D content as regular milk. What's different is the sugar content.

"We got the milk companies to reduce the fat as much as possible. We asked them to decrease the amount of sugar and keep the flavor," said Cookie Palmer, nutrition program director for Hall County Schools.

Savage said some students don't like the change in sugar content, but added that's a palatability issue they will get used to.

"We are selling flavored milk this year that is all natural, no artificial flavoring or sweeteners," said Carlton Bates, Mayfield food service manager, in an email to The Times. "It was done because of consumer demand, and we wanted to offer an all-natural, no (recombinant bovine somatotropin growth hormone) milk to our customers."

That means the company got rid of neotame, an artificial sweetener used in vanilla milk, and high fructose corn syrup. It's using sugar instead. To the same extent, Mayfield changed from using an artificial coloring in strawberry milk to using natural beet juice, which Bates said does not affect the milk's flavor.

The Southeast United Dairy Industry Association said flavored milk adds 3 percent of sugars to kids' diets, less than fruit drinks and sodas.

"Not all of the sugar you see on the label is ‘added sugar,'" according to documents from the association. "Some of the total grams are naturally occurring lactose."

The additional sugar in flavored milk amounts to about 2.5 teaspoons, which is a fair trade-off for the nutrients kids are getting from the beverage, Lommel said.

"Research has actually shown now that chocolate milk — because of the balance between protein and carbohydrates — it's an effective post-exercise recovery aid," she said.

Chocolate milk is the top choice for kids in Gainesville and Hall schools.

Since August, Hall County schools have gone through more than 900,000 cartons of nonfat chocolate milk, compared to about 423,000 cartons of both varieties of unflavored milk. Strawberry milk and skim milk are nearly the same in popularity, and only 90,000 cartons of vanilla milk have been purchased so far.

Fifty percent of Gainesville students choose to drink chocolate milk, 20 percent strawberry and the remainder drink one of the unflavored types. Their milk uses high fructose corn syrup, a processed sugar.

"There is a perceived difference (between high fructose corn syrup and sugar) in public opinion," Lommel said. "There's a lack of scientific research to put one over the other. From a dietician standpoint, high fructose corn syrup and sugar are both sugars. Your body will digest it the same. At the end of the day, it's a carbohydrate."


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