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USDA considers ban on flavored milk in schools

May 16, 2023


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The ongoing debate regarding the presence of flavored milk in school cafeterias has once again taken center stage as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers a potential ban on chocolate and strawberry milk. The prospective ban aims to reduce children’s sugar intake, as flavored milk contains added sugars that plain milk does not.

“Flavored milk is a challenging issue to figure out exactly the best path forward,” Cindy Long, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, said. “We really do want to encourage children to consume milk and we also recognize the need to reduce added-sugar consumption.”

Supporters of the ban emphasize the detrimental effects of added sugars found in flavored milk. They have expressed concerns about the impact on children’s health and well-being, suggesting that eliminating these options would be a step toward promoting healthier habits.

“From a public health perspective, it makes a lot of sense to try to limit the servings of these flavored milks because they do have quite a lot of added sugar,” said Erica Lauren Kenney, a public-health and nutrition professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. 

On the other side of the debate, proponents argue that flavored milk provides nine essential nutrients that are crucial for children’s diets. They contend that removing these options entirely could lead to children skipping milk altogether, resulting in a loss of valuable nutrition. These individuals believe that offering a variety of milk choices is essential to ensuring children maintain a balanced diet.

“We know taste and food preferences really do form early in life and stay with you,” said Erin Hennessy, a professor at the ​​Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “The more protective we can be of our children during those developmental windows is a good thing in the long run.”

The ongoing discussion is not new, as schools have conducted studies over the years to assess the consequences of removing chocolate milk from their menus. One notable study from a Massachusetts school district in 2019 showed that when schools offered a range of flavored milk options, 94% of students chose to consume milk with their meals. However, in schools that eliminated chocolate milk, only 57% of students opted for plain milk, as it was the sole milk option available.

While the USDA is considering excluding flavored milk from elementary schools, and possibly middle schools as well, the proposed guidance does not necessarily enforce an outright ban. However, milk processors would be required to adhere to new limits on the amount of added sugars. In March, a group of 37 school milk processors, which account for over 90% of the U.S. school milk volume, expressed its commitment to meeting the proposed limits, while still advocating for a variety of milk choices to be available.

“The Healthy School Milk Commitment goes above and beyond federal nutrition guidelines, ensuring that all children in grades K-12 continue to have access to the milk they enjoy with fewer calories and less added sugar,” said Michael Dykes, International Dairy Foods Association president and CEO. “Milk processors continue to step up by providing wholesome, healthy, and nutritious white milk and flavored milk options with 13 essential nutrients that students will consume.”

Critics of the “chocolate milk debate” argue that there are more significant health issues affecting children than the type of milk they consume. They point to the decline in physical activity among children, particularly during the pandemic, as a pressing concern. According to the U.S. Report Card on Physical Activity for Children, physical activity in children aged 6 to 17 has decreased by an average of 17 minutes per day. Less than a quarter of children currently engage in the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity.

The USDA is expected to make its final decision on the matter by the beginning of next year. If implemented, schools will have until the start of the 2025 academic year to incorporate the required changes.

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