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Orthorexia vs. chocolate milk:
Will the real eating disorder please stand up?

Have you heard of an eating disorder called orthorexia? Translated literally, it means “correct appetite” or “correct eating,” and it’s when people obsess over the “right” foods to the point that it controls their lives and wrecks their health. Orthorexia isn’t new, nor is it recognized as an official disorder. But it’s gotten a lot of press in recent years, including lately, with this widely circulated article.

Why the buzz? Author Michael Pollan has suggested that orthorexia is the fallout of nutritionism, a food-industry construct that emphasizes nutrients (often fortified) over actual whole foods. So it’s possible that we’re seeing more food fixation from a greater number of people already on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

But I have another theory about why orthorexia stories go viral. It’s because a lot of people think conscious eaters are obsessive-compulsive in their own right, and orthorexia gives wiseguys a reason to call us freaks. It happens every time orthorexia makes the news (like this Spoonfed comment). And usually I sigh and ignore it because, really, why talk sense with folks more interested in talking trash?

Except the latest orthorexia wave hit amid the Great Chocolate Milk Debate. And that got me thinking. How nuts are we as a country that healthful food is gleefully ridiculed while government-subsidized dreck is defended as a symbol of ideal nutrition and food freedom? What on earth is wrong with us?

Battle of the bottles

As everyone must know by now, banning chocolate milk has become the cause célèbre of school food. Even before Jamie Oliver filled a schoolbus with sand-cum-sugar to make his point in Los Angeles, school-food activists were on the case. Most notably chef Ann Cooper (who calls flavored milk “soda in drag”) and journalist Ed Bruske, who has meticulously documented the biased research and questionable endorsements behind the dairy industry’s campaign to keep flavored milk in schools (where it accounts for 66% of all milk sold).

The anti-ban voices have protested right along, but Oliver’s crusade raised the stakes. Some examples: Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Lunch Tray, Raise Healthy Eaters, EducationNews and Time.

The arguments range from tiresome (nanny state) to insulting (kids will eat healthy food only if it’s sweet or disguised) to thoughtful (concerns over calcium intake and federal lunch reimbursements). But they all miss the point: Flavored milk in schools isn’t good for kids, no matter how it’s justified. It’s questionably nutritious, sugared-up, adulterated with thickeners and fake colors and flavors, and processed to within an inch of palatability. It’s the symbol of a system that feeds kids calories and chemicals sold as nourishment. And it’s the product of a spin machine that has too many people believing that milk is a magical calcium elixir and, thus, that any milk is better than no milk.

Sugar haze

Before I say more, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about chocolate milk made with real milk, real chocolate, at home, as a treat, hot or cold, whatever. Or even the occasional packaged chocolate milk provided by parents. That’s not what this debate is about. So enough with the nanny-state nonsense. But if people want to talk about the food police, let’s talk about how schools, via government commodities and corporate kickbacks, already dictate the chocolate milk and everything else we feed kids. Every. Single. Day. That’s something the nanny-state complainers conveniently forget when they blather about free choice.

So. Moving along.

Those who support flavored milk are quick to note that while, yes, it has cane or beet sugar or high-fructose corn syrup on top of naturally occurring lactose, it also has protein, calcium, other minerals and vitamins (some added, some inherent). Which sets it apart from soda, sports drinks and juice. And they’re right. Theoretically.

But there’s good reason to question whether the hyper-processed, low-fat milk served in schools even makes those nutrients available. High-heat pasteurization denatures enzymes that help the body absorb calcium. And vitamins A and D (both added) aren’t absorbed without sufficient fat. Then there’s the fact that added sugar isn’t just empty calories — it’s an anti-nutrient that depletes vital minerals. And science keeps reaffirming that we’re fat and sick precisely because of refined sugar and refined grains, not because of the saturated fat that has long been blamed. So even reducing the sugar, as some advocate, isn’t enough. This isn’t just about calories and obesity. (And it’s most definitely not about “moderation.”) It’s about health.

Got dessert?

But, OK, even if every last nutrient is absorbed, even if added sugar isn’t toxic and doesn’t contribute to serious childhood health issues, must we patronize kids by turning everything into dessert? And, in the process, undermine their taste for non-sweet foods? Are we such victims of nutritionism that the word “calcium” on the label is all that matters?

Let’s look, too, at the reason many kids won’t drink plain school milk in the first place: It tastes bad. Milk processors and schools acknowledge this, blaming the
off-flavors on processing, packaging and storage. Um. OK. But instead of masking the flavor of inferior milk, why not do something about it? We might never return to the more nutritious whole milk that was served before saturated fat became the devil. But we can move toward milk free from artificial hormones and pesticides, milk sourced and processed in more responsible, palatable ways. Think that’s unrealistic? Check out this Food & Water Watch school milk campaign for tips on getting better milk in your own school. We never know until we try.

Propaganda 101

Dairy processors play the consumption card when lobbying for chocolate milk, which is why we’ve all seen the statistic that school kids drink 37% less milk when flavored milks are eliminated. Given the taste complaints and how long it takes to break bad habits, I’m inclined to believe it. But it’s also worth considering why the dairy industry — which funded that study — might want us to believe consumption drops even if it doesn’t.

Aside from the fact that chocolate milk in some cases costs more, milk processors also benefit when more kids choose milk as one of three (out of five) mandated components of school lunch. (Milk must be offered, though not necessarily taken, for the lunch to qualify for federal reimbursement.) So processors don’t want just the same number of kids choosing milk for lunch — they want more kids choosing milk for lunch. And they want to sell more milk a la carte, too. And since kids are more likely to choose sweetened milk (especially over unappetizing options like limp veggies), there’s a clear incentive to show that milk consumption drops when chocolate milk isn’t offered. Because that’s exactly the scare tactic dairy processors need to keep peddling the flavored stuff.

Bottom line: Schools sell only 2.3% of all the plain milk sold in the United States. But they sell 53.5% of all the flavored milk.

And if milk consumption does drop? That’s OK. Vegans and lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic folks (and plenty of other countries and cultures) do fine without milk. And so can the rest of us. If we choose. And it is a choice, despite the drink-milk-or-else propaganda from dairy-funded groups like the American Dietetic Association and School Nutrition Association. (For lists of other calcium sources: Dr. Sears and National Institutes of Health.)

Sweet talkers

So let’s leave the panicking to the dairy processors and direct our energy to something that really matters: making free water mandatory in schools. (I know. Hard to believe it’s taken this long for the government to get behind that.) The dairy industry’s own research shows that 64% of parents would rather their kids choose plain milk or water over anything else. Only 15% said they’d rather their kids choose flavored milk. Remind me again, why is this an issue?

Choice and control

Flavored-milk proponents like to say that sweetened milk is the least of our school food problems. Yes, sure, cafeterias serve lots of nasty things. But why is that an argument for flavored milk? If chocolate milk were the only worry on a tray of clean, wholesome food, then the pro camp might have a case. But that’s the problem: It’s flavored milk on top of syrupy canned fruit on top of additive-loaded muffins on top of fried everything.

I also don’t buy the argument that keeping flavored milk preserves “choice.” Raising food-literate children is not about offering every possible option no matter what. It’s about educating kids on ingredients and how foods are produced. And it’s about being exposed to real food on a regular basis and developing a taste for it. But kids can’t do that if they’re constantly bombarded with inferior options. I’m all about empowering and respecting kids’ ability to make smart food choices. But let’s not forget that they are kids. We have a responsibility to offer good choices in the first place, and to teach children that not all foods deserve equal billing.

Which, finally, brings us back to orthorexia. Orthorexia isn’t about food. It’s about control, fear and the inability to make rational choices. And right now the flavored-milk debate is driven by an industry that wants to maintain control by making us too scared to make good choices for our kids. Even Steven Bratman, the Colorado doctor who coined the term “orthorexia” in 1996, says “the problem of addiction to junk food is immensely more serious than excessive obsession with healthy food.” So you tell me: What’s our national eating disorder? Who’s not in control now?

Spoonfed is now on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, voices, viewpoints, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.)

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

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{ 78 comments… add one }

  • Kira June 1, 2011, 11:25 pm

    The “choice” argument bothers me the most. Yeah, people have the right to eat/feed their kids whatever they choose, but when those individuals make willfully uneducated choices and refuse to hear anything else, that’s troubling to me. In my opinion it’s the adult equivalent of a child plugging their ears and singing nonsense at the top of their lungs to avoid hearing what they don’t want to hear.

  • treen June 1, 2011, 11:37 pm

    I’ve drunk that stuff. It’s not milk. Or real chocolate either. It’s brown syrup. Ugh … disgusting school “food” – one more reason we’ve decided to homeschool.

    • Laura Ashley July 5, 2011, 8:31 am

      agreed. The quality of cafeteria food and the content of other kids’ lunches is a major point in our private school decision. I know I can’t shelter them forever, but I don’t want them to think those kinda of habits are normal and feel deprived.

      • Christina July 16, 2011, 11:47 pm

        Laura: We chose our daughter’s school in part because it doesn’t have a cafeteria and kids aren’t allowed to share food. And that has been a huge help and relief. I’ll say, though, that packed lunches at private schools can be just as bad as packed lunches anywhere else. So we’ve raised Tess to understand that everyone makes different food choices (for different reasons), and that being different is OK.

        (BTW: Apologies for the late reply. Just realized that I’d not responded to some comments that I thought I had!)

  • kristi June 2, 2011, 7:22 am

    I have never understood the “everything in moderation” argument, nor have I understood the reasoning behind giving kids unhealthy, chemical-laden food “every once and awhile” as a “treat.” As you so smartly noted, kids are kids. It’s our responsibility as parents to help them understand why some foods are good for their bodies and some are not, and that not every food deserves consumption, simply because food marketers have indoctrinated parents into thinking that the junk they’re peddling is part of giving kids a happy childhood.

    I am often accused of being hyper-sensitive about the food I choose to serve my kids. I don’t see this as being orthorexic. I see it as making informed food choices. Unfortunately, I think many people don’t know enough to read ingredient labels to discover what’s really in their food. If they did, we wouldn’t have crackpots coming up with ridiculous condition names for those of us who do.

    • Magda June 6, 2011, 12:36 pm

      Thank you for that comment. I have this battle with my MIL once in a while (she lives in Europe so I only see her once a year). She actually mentioned the orthorexia article (which has made its way to European newspapers as well) and said that’s why I have… Well, not really. I decided it was best to not have that argument with her. I caved in and let her feed my boys some junk food. I would have stood my ground but DH is not that supportive so I let it slide. It was only one week of the year… still, I hated to see that junk go into my kids.

  • damaged justice June 2, 2011, 8:52 am

    It’s not a choice when someone else is forcing me to pay for their bad decisions. Of course, the “solution” inevitably proposed is not to stop forcing A to pay for B, but instead to further restrict everyone’s behavior. I always wonder, every year, how much more pastured beef I might have in my freezer if I weren’t being robbed in order to subsidize junk.

  • Kristen June 2, 2011, 9:22 am

    As always, incredibly insightful and informative.

  • Bri June 2, 2011, 9:39 am

    Everything you say is so true, Christina. I wonder why so few people actually choose to remember that school lunches ARE provided, decided, and subsidized by the so-called “nanny state.” I also wonder why there seems to be an expectation that “so-so,” “status quo,” and “sort of good enough” are acceptable descriptors for the meals that are being fed to our children. But that’s just me, being orthorexic, again. I know you probably saw this, but I figured I’d repost here just in case you hadn’t: http://redroundorgreen.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-new-eating-disorder-this-time-its-personal/

    • Christina June 7, 2011, 12:35 pm

      Bri, the thing that bothers me about media coverage of orthorexia is that even when the stories themselves are balanced and have the appropriate caveats, readers see what they want to see and run with it. Then we end up with crazy comments sections and gleeful-hateful Facebook statuses and all the rest. I wouldn’t mind the coverage if people could keep it in perspective, but too many can’t.

  • Bevie June 2, 2011, 9:46 am

    Two points that occur to me while reading this.
    One: I remember drinking plain milk in school (by CHOICE, so nyah-nyah to folks who think kids only want flavored milk all the time) and when it had an off taste it was not that it was over processed it was as though it had spent too much time outside of refrigeration. I suspect that flavors added to milk allow it to be “drinkable” at a point when even a very distracted child would return a plain milk as spoiled.
    Two: I would be considerably less bothered by the types of milk served if sending my kids lunch with them was a more viable option, but teachers and school officials can find ways to interfere with lunch-packing parents. The little boy that lives with me was happily eating his packed lunch every day until his teacher told him that I was not giving him enough food. When I sent larger lunches she complained that she could not recognize the foods I was sending (does homemade bread really look that different?), and even called child services, because she thought I was punishing him by not letting him have school food.
    So, I agree with those who say choice is great. I support your desire to let your kids choose an inferior food-like substance. I will happily stop whining about sugar-bombed “milk” being made available to my kids against my wishes just as soon as I have the real freedom to send my kids to school with whatever I consider to be a healthy lunch so that they don’t HAVE to drink it or go without.

    • jenna @ Kid Appeal June 2, 2011, 11:26 am

      gasp. how dare you feed a child real food prepared out of love in your kitchen?? you really need to get with the program and feed them the packaged stuff food marketers pay millions to convince parents, teachers and communities that kids need packaged food to thrive and be healthy. (end saracasm) That one hit a nerve, the exact thing has happened to me at both the preschool and public school my kids go to. more than one teacher has asked me to send junk because my child wants what others have. my kids eat real food at home just fine, it’s only when junk surrounds them that they struggle with eating a chicken salad sandwich with lettuce and a cup of water, instead of fried chicken patty sandwich and choco milk.

      • Christina June 4, 2011, 10:38 pm

        Jenna: That expectation of conformity drives me nuts. Bananas, loco, crazy, completely and totally insane. (I really should finish my blog post on that one, eh?)

    • Christina June 4, 2011, 10:32 pm

      Bevie: Child services? That’s outrageous. It’s stories like this that underscore how truly food illiterate we’ve become. I hope the teacher has now been educated a bit?

  • Ed Bruske June 2, 2011, 10:19 am

    Great post. And you nailed it: The best reason of all to ditch flavored milk in schools is because it symbolizes not only the corporate greed that has insinuated itself into the meals program, but the backward thinking that there’s an easy shortcut to getting kids to eat the foods they need. Parents need to own up and teach kids to like plain milk again, if milk is what they should be drinking.

  • jenna @ Kid Appeal June 2, 2011, 11:33 am

    wow christina, brilliant work with so many great resources linked up. i have a “chocolate milk, i don’t get it, what’s the big deal?” post planned, if it ever sees the light of day, i’ll be linking to this…

    i do hope those that don’t get what the fuss is about take the time to really consider this issue. it isn’t Just Chocolate Milk. this issue does warrant your time to understand the detriments of turning nutients into dessert. dessertifying milk just follows suit with dessert grains (cinnamon toast crunch, granola bars), and desert fruit (fruit packed in syrup, fruit snack pouches).

  • Lisa @ Real Food Digest June 2, 2011, 12:09 pm

    It’s sad and disturbing that those of us who try to keep our kids as healthy as possible by giving them real food get labeled with a disorder and criticized for going to extremes.
    Part of the problem is people are forgetting how healthy kids are supposed to be – they shouldn’t be getting ear infections, asthma, seasonal allergies, food allergies, headaches, skin conditions, sleep disorders, etc… But many of these kids get put on medications and continue with unhealthy diets while their parents (and doctors) deny that food has anything to do with it.
    Excellent post Christina!

    • Christina June 7, 2011, 12:42 pm

      Lisa, that really bothers me, too — the ignorance or denial that diet might be contributing to a child’s health or behavioral issues. But every day I read about or talk to people who have come around on this, so I’m calling that progress.

  • Dana Woldow June 2, 2011, 1:01 pm

    To learn how to advocate for better food at your child’s school, please visit http://www.peachsf.org – a free resource for anyone who wants to start working for change. It doesn’t take a lot of people to begin making improvements to the cafeteria menu, just a few hardy souls who are committed to doing better by our kids and willing to take the time to learn how to do it. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

  • Erin June 2, 2011, 5:43 pm

    Thank you for this. So well put.

  • Naomi June 2, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Great post and I totally agree. My kindergardener is sensitive to milk and we don’t do dairy products in our whole household. When I send my son to school I have to pack him water. The few times a month he does buy lunch I also have to send him water. I am disgusted by the dairy industry and shutter when ever I see those GOT MILK ads.

  • Julie June 3, 2011, 1:19 am

    THANKS for a great post!! So thorough. This issue makes me nuts. My child is 2 and I whole-heartedly support all efforts this gets changed before I ever have to deal with it!!

  • Louise Goldberg RD CSP LD CNSC June 3, 2011, 2:29 am

    Are you able to back up the claims you make here with a well executed peer-reviewed study? You are promoting mistrust and misinformation. Most enzymes in milk can survive the pasteurization process-but get destroyed in our own stomach acids. This won’t impact whether we can digest milk though-that’s simply not true. Lactase is an enzyme our body makes and it is released in response to lactose (naturally occurring milk sugar that makes up at least 50% of the “sugar” grams on a choc milk food label) entering our GI tract.
    I’m frustrated because I feel your misinformation is yet another reason why the average parent throws their hands up in confusion. Please do NOT misunderstand me! I am not an advocate for chocolate syrup in milk nor am I an advocate for dairy. I’m an advocate for children and their nutritional health. As a dietitian and a board certified pediatric nutrition specialist, I spend my day working around patients diet restrictions, food allergies, personal preferences, and respecting their wishes while figuring out how to get them what they need and help them sort through this nonsense. It is despicable that you accuse entire professional groups of altering their medical advice -which is backed up by evidenced based research-because they are ‘bought’ by the dairy industry-which is slander and an absolute falsehood. Have you ever sat down with a dietitian and asked what are some good sources of calcium? You think we just say “milk milk and more milk?” Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. What do I do if a child has a milk allergy? He still has to get calcium for bone deposition!
    There is a complete disconnect between what you have posted and what is reality in the typical family–please come to work with me and listen to my overweight and obese patients recall the food they consumed the day before. Chocolate milk IS the least of their problems-but of course, that doesn’t make for an interesting blog post, does it? I think it is socially irresponsible for someone (unqualified) to blindly make medical/health recommendations to a mass audience. If I said anything along the lines of what you have said without proof or legitimate science based evidence to back up my claims, I would have my license revoked before you could get another blog post in. These conspiracy theories are confusing to parents and alarming. Use your passion to promote fruit and veggie intake instead!

    • Christina June 3, 2011, 10:38 am

      Louise, if you re-read what I wrote, you’ll see that I talked about neither general digestion nor enzyme destruction. I said that high-heat pasteurization denatures enzymes (which means it changes their nature and thus diminishes biological activity), and that one of the functions of those enzymes is to help in calcium absorption.

      Though since you mentioned the destruction of enzymes, you might take a look at something called the negative phosphatase test, which is a method used in dairy production to ensure that pasteurization has taken effect. How? By testing to see whether alkaline phosphatase enzymes have been inactivated (i.e., destroyed). More details from U.C. Davis/Rutgers University and Cornell University.

      If you still think it’s bunk that enzymatic properties affect calcium absorption, I invite you to show me well-executed, peer-reviewed (and unbiased) studies that prove otherwise. Because I’ve looked and asked and can’t find any. So I’d be grateful if you’d like to share.

      And yes, I mentioned the fact that flavored milk has naturally occurring lactose. But it also has plenty of added sugar. So I stand by my original point: Chocolate milk may not be the biggest worry in school food, but so what? It’s still not good for kids on a regular basis, and its prevalence is the product of a corrupt system. Individual dietitians may not say “milk milk and more milk,” but the ADA absolutely does. Does the ADA promote dairy even for milk-allergic children? Well of course not. But otherwise milk is treated as a given.

      As for your patronizing contention that I should stick to promoting fruit and veggie consumption: With all due respect to your training and education, plenty of intelligent people are capable of researching and understanding these concepts even without the degree. If anything promotes mistrust and misinformation — and fosters “conspiracy theories” — it’s the arrogance of the mainstream nutrition community and its belittling of people’s capacity for intellect.

      Nutrition professionals can certainly help guide parents in gathering information, putting it in context and finding solutions. But parents shouldn’t blindly follow that advice just because it comes from someone with letters attached to his/her name.

      I understand the frustration. I really do. Because there is a lot of misinformation out there. But let’s be honest and acknowledge that credentialed professionals supply plenty of misinformation, too. And it’s our responsibility as parents and citizens to ask questions and think critically. And to raise our kids to do the same.

      • Michele Deckard August 11, 2014, 9:07 pm

        WELL SAID!!!!!! The medical community is designed to be reactive not proactive. They have no interest in finding the root cause of illness only in treating symptoms with drugs. It is our responsibility as parents to educate ourselves and children.

  • Alison June 3, 2011, 3:11 am

    But kids can’t do that if they’re constantly bombarded with inferior options.
    Amen. Chocolate milk in school was never somethng we had to deal with until our recent move, but sure enough there it is now, in all its nasty, non-fat, fake glory. Our kiddos are pretty savvy eaters, but what’s surprised me is the grip that is “hot lunch.” It’s as much a social and ritual experience as anything else and there’s something about it that makes my kiddos overlook everything they’ve ever been taught and that we practice at home. It’s not peer pressure per se, it’s more of a novelty effect. They know the milk at school tastes weird, but they drink it anyway. We’ve settled on one meal a week – more than I want, less than they pushed for – but it surely bums me out that we’ve had to negotiate this at all.

    • Christina June 7, 2011, 12:55 pm

      Alison, that “hot lunch” thing gets me every time, as though something cooked (or re-zapped in the microwave) is automatically better than something cold. And I’m not talking about the kids — I think you’re right that, for them, it’s more about socializing and ritual than it is about food. But “hot lunch” was the buzzword du jour in the discussion on this post: When parents stand in the way of better school food.

  • Lee June 3, 2011, 10:07 am

    Thank you for this smart, articulate, well-researched post. Great job.

  • Renee June 3, 2011, 10:49 am

    Something that I really don’t understand is why Americans (maybe western Europeans too?) think that cow’s milk is an essential part of anyone’s diet. There are plenty of cultures where it does not play an important role in diet, and those people are not all deficient in calcium. To me it really does seem like just another agri-business promoting itself –I wonder how much it would cut into the dairy industry’s profits if milk was no longer required as part of school lunches?

    I think that kids should be offered good water, or fresh, well-maintained white milk. And I’d go for 2% or whole, as well, especially for young kids who are in living in food-insecure homes.

    • Dana June 6, 2011, 1:04 am

      Yes, and those traditional cultures that do not consume dairy get their calcium instead from animal bones. Usually they make a broth from the bones and the tougher meat and that’s where they get their bone minerals. And if you think about it it’s perfectly logical: the minerals already *in* presumably healthy bones are going to be in pretty much the proportions we need for *our* bones.

      But I bet that’s not what you’re talking about when you say “alternative calcium sources.” And when was the last time you met someone who knew how to make bone broth?

      There’s nothing wrong with consuming dairy. Period. I really don’t care that some random non-pastoral culture out there never gets cow milk–it *never occurred* to them to consume it or to raise cattle for it. But it has occurred to us, and anyone who had the time, money, and inclination could go out and buy a cow and milk it, in theory. It does not require arcane chemical or mechanical knowledge to secure milk for one’s diet. Therefore it is a real food and worth consuming.

      Go get mad at Plenty International, going around the world getting indigenous communities hooked on soymilk production, which not only requires destruction of the land for agricultural purposes but also specialized machinery, because last I checked you cannot milk a soy plant.

      Plants are lousy sources of minerals. They usually don’t have the fat included to aid in assimilation, and on top of that the minerals are usually bound up with some noxious antinutrient or another. Not having horns or claws or sharp teeth, a plant must defend itself by chemical means. This is why we developed cooking for anything that wasn’t a fruit.

      • Metal Prophet June 6, 2011, 3:13 pm

        If that’s the case, though, why is something like 70% of the world lactose intolerant? Cow’s milk causes a lot of people, myself included, a great deal of discomfort. And there are alternatives outside of soy milk that are less problematic, anyway.

        • Christina June 7, 2011, 2:14 pm

          Metal Prophet: I haven’t heard that 70% statistic before (do you have a source?). But I do know there’s a lot of debate about what it means to be lactose-intolerant, how that manifests and how the body handles raw vs. pasteurized dairy. So I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. There’s no question, though, that milk is not for everyone, nor that plenty of people do just fine without it.

      • Elle June 6, 2011, 8:45 pm

        http://www.ncsoy.org/ABOUT-SOYBEANS/Uses-of-Soybeans.aspx “Most soybeans are processed for their oil and protein for the animal feed industry. A smaller percentage is processed for human consumption” Yeah, land is destroyed for agricultural purposes to feed cattle. Cut out the middleman and we’d use less land.

        • Anita December 12, 2013, 4:58 am

          Soybean production does not destroy land, in any way, shape or form.

          • Christina December 12, 2013, 12:18 pm

            Anita: Given that you do communications for the agriculture industry and previously worked for the Indiana Soybean Alliance, I would expect you to be able to articulate your position with actual facts. I would love to hear the basis for your statement.

      • Merideth November 29, 2012, 1:36 pm

        I loved your post. Chocolate milk being given to kids IS a problem, and I see so often how very out of touch people with all those letters after their names are, especially as it has concerned MY health. She should be giving you kudos instead of criticizing, so keep up the good work. Why would criticizing the over-use of chocolate milk and promoting fruits and vegetables be mutually exclusive, anyway? It’s just that this post was about well, chocolate milk. I get that.

        And by the way, I make bone broth all the time. Not only is it economical, tasty, and nutritious, it’s also really, really easy. I do it at least once a week. Last week’s broth was, you guessed it, turkey! And man, was it good…

  • Angela FRS June 3, 2011, 12:54 pm

    Excellent article. I especially appreciate your concise dismantling of the “nanny state” argument. People who make that argument are worrying about the wrong things, in a big way.

  • Jenny Breen June 3, 2011, 2:30 pm

    I happen to be a local sustainable foods chef, and a mom with an MPH in nutrition and 15 years of teaching nutrition and health to adults, children AND foodservice professionals. First of all, thank you for a very articulate and well presented article. I am saddened by the demise of our food culture and inspired by some of the new and renewed approaches, such as actually cooking food in schools. Louise, while I believe your goal is to help people and direct them toward health, and I have seen many of those same families and know firsthand what you are dealing with, but let’s be honest, the ADA has promoted highly inappropriate and unhealthy foods (biggest sponsors at the annual convention are Coca cola and McDonald’s) because they are beholden to them financially, and politically. There are HUGE changes going on inside the ADA, but slow moving and not without great conflict. I just spent two years studying nutrition with a lot of very mainstream academics, many of whom can’t pronounce quinoa (“keen-wa”) and don’t really know how to cook. As parents, and adults we need to expect more of ourselves, our children and our food culture. What big agro business and industrial food has done to confuse and sicken our society is what’s despicable. I am happy to say that here in Minnesota, I am a small part of a very exciting and wonderful combined effort between the health department, the university and the school nutrition association to rebuild the infrastructure and skills to start feeding kids real, whole, local foods in schools-and chocolate milk is NOT on the menu.

    • Christina June 7, 2011, 1:34 pm

      Jenny, that kind of grassroots effort is how real change happens, IMHO. I think legislation has a place (especially when it comes to holding corporations accountable and changing the incentives/subsidies), but there’s no question that hands-on effort gets it done. Would love to hear more details about your initiative.

  • Bettina at The Lunch Tray June 4, 2011, 10:22 am

    Hi Chris:

    As one of the “anti-ban” voices you cite in this piece, I feel I should offer my perspective here. (You give a range of reasons why someone might be anti-ban – I personally like to think I fall into your category of “thoughtful” as opposed to “tiresome” and “insulting,” but if I’m wrong, don’t tell me otherwise. :-) )

    You certainly offer many compelling arguments in favor of banning flavored milk in schools and you do so in your usual articulate and passionate way. Some of the reasons you lay out here I accept, others I reject, and others I simply don’t have enough information to evaluate (such as the highly technical back and forth in your comment section between you and Louise Goldberg, the RD, on enzymes, fat, et al. All that is totally above my pay-grade, as they say.)

    But as you know, my own piece on this subject (“My Problem with Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk” http://bit.ly/iriT9D) took a much more “meta” view of this issue. Simply put: well-meaning, well-educated and well-intentioned people disagree about flavored milk – strongly. Maybe not so much among the readership of your blog, which, as with any blog, is a self-selecting group, but I’m speaking here of the parent and health professional population at large.

    No matter how certain you are of the correctness of your views, and no matter how much flavored milk proponents may have been duped by the ADA (something I don’t necessarily accept, but let’s say this is true for the sake of argument), this is still a highly divisive issue for a lot of people. So when you say: “Flavored-milk proponents like to say that sweetened milk is the least of our school food problems . . . . But why is that an argument for flavored milk?”, my answer is, it’s not an argument FOR flavored milk, but it might be an argument AGAINST making flavored milk our cause of the day. Shouldn’t we focus our attention on the really big issues first, and then work our way down to the flavored milk, instead of the other way around? Just as you say in your piece, we have a real problem if it’s “flavored milk on top of syrupy canned fruit on top of additive-loaded muffins on top of fried everything,” and my suggestion is, what if we focused our collective efforts and energy on exactly those problems you identify — the additives, the fried food, the processed crap? Those are issues around which we can all agree.

    Why do I feel it’s so important to achieve consensus about what battles we pick? Why can’t we all just fight the good fight in our own way? Well, the truth is, I sometimes walk around feeling that the world is chock full of people who care deeply about improving school food, but even I recognize that my perspective is seriously skewed by the fact that I blog about these issues daily and have a highly engaged readership. In the real world, sadly, there’s a ton of apathy, passive acceptance and just plain ignorance about what is being fed to our children in American schools each day.

    There are just too few of us who deeply care about school food reform, it seems to me, to be engaged in in-fighting over what I regard as an important but subsidiary issue. And that’s precisely why I questioned Jamie Oliver’s unrelenting focus on flavored milk this season – low-hanging fruit, to be sure, but, to my mind, really missing the big picture, i.e., the unconscionable lack of adequate funding for school food (which, by the way, is now further threatened by House Republicans who want to roll back even the modest gains we achieved with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. More on what the GOP is up to here: http://bit.ly/kgY0uI)

    As always, I very much appreciate the depth of your research and your well-written arguments. For some people, maybe you, flavored milk really is School Food Public Enemy Number One. I believe, however, that we have much bigger fish (or shall I say, processed-preservative-filled-pink-slime-containing-burgers) to fry.

    Sorry to go on and on here – I meant to be brief and now this comment is now so long that it’s a blog post in itself! (Perhaps I’ll post it on TLT this week so that my own readers can chime in.)

    • Christina June 4, 2011, 8:38 pm

      Thanks, Bettina. The thing is, we’re already debating it, already expending energy, already making inroads in removing flavored milk. So we can’t just put the genie back in the bottle. Nor should we. We need to take this momentum and run with it. Divisiveness is not, in my mind, a good reason to give up. Especially since a lot of the disagreement is because people are uninformed (or misinformed) or simply desiring to be provocative.

      Flavored milk isn’t the biggest worry in school food. But it is a worry. And that’s good enough. I just don’t get this argument that we should start big and work backward to small. Where else in life does that make sense? Change happens one step at a time, and if we get hung up thinking that smaller changes aren’t worth it, then we risk making the perfect the enemy of the good.

      It’s going to take years to get better funding and to overhaul ingredients in every food category on a large scale. So are we supposed to sit around and wait for that to happen before tackling a relatively simple thing (i.e., one category) like flavored milk?

      And why does it have to be one or the other? Who says we can’t be working on the big and the small in tandem? On a purely grassroots level, it’s a lot easier to get rid of one item than it is to change formulations and sourcing for entire menus. And, again, the work has already begun, and schools are already eliminating or moving to eliminate flavored milk. Why would we want to stop that?

      In the end, though, the simplest argument is that flavored milk in schools is unhealthful, it stands for all the wrong things and our kids deserve better.

      • Bettina at The Lunch Tray June 6, 2011, 12:25 pm


        Just a few thoughts on your reply to my comment.

        You say, “the work has already begun, and schools are already eliminating or moving to eliminate flavored milk. Why would we want to stop that?” And here’s a place where you and I actually agree. If a school or district has parental consensus on removing flavored milk, I think that’s terrific. Indeed, it might surprise you to learn that I and another parent are working over the summer on a school-wide survey to assess parental attitudes in our elementary school regarding flavored milk, along with other offerings in our cafeteria. If there’s a majority of parents who support the removal of flavored milk, I will fight Food Services tooth and nail to get it out of there.

        But the operative word here is “consensus.” It’s all to easy to say, “a lot of the disagreement is because people are uninformed (or misinformed) or simply desiring to be provocative,” but that kind of blanket dismissal of one’s opponents – besides being a little too facile, in my opinion, and personally insulting to boot — is not the way to bring about effective, lasting change.

        If you feel people are so sorely misinformed, then go ahead and educate them (as you are trying to do with this post). But shoving a flavored milk ban down their throats is likely to backfire. For example, Fairfax County, VA instituted such a ban without first securing parental support, and there was such an outcry that they felt forced to bring it back. (http://bit.ly/htTEsR). Similarly, Ed Bruske (a pro-ban school food blogger) reported from Chef Ann Cooper’s Boulder district that children have been seen bringing their own squeeze bottles of strawberry and chocolate syrup into the lunch room to recreate the flavored milk that was taken away. (http://bit.ly/91EgVo) (And if they’re like most kids given free rein with a squeeze bottle, they may well be adding MORE sugar and chemicals to their milk than they would’ve gotten with a pre-packaged product.)

        I agree that there’s nothing wrong with divisiveness per se and I’m certainly not trying to squelch debate on this issue. Moreover, any grassroots movement is marked by competing and conflicting agendas, and why should school food reform be any different? But when a leader emerges in any movement, he or she will ideally use the bully pulpit with care. And in the case of school food reform, I would say the current “leader,” to the extent we have one, is Jamie Oliver, who, with his Emmy-winning “Food Revolution” show, has probably drawn more national attention to school food than anyone else.

        No, he didn’t have to choose overwhelmingly large goal like “overhaul[ing] ingredients in every food category on a large scale.” Why not start with something discreet but about which all parents can agree, like urging the USDA to ban the use of the ammonia-treated beef (aka, the very same “pink slime” he featured on his show) which, even despite its scary chemical bath, can still carry E.Coli? Or how about a measure to ban highly processed foods like the 50-ingredient (no joke) Uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwich (and similar processed dreck) that currently appears on trays all over the country? Or urging Congress to provide more funding so schools can build adequate kitchens and train their staffs in food safety and handling, and then be able to use more “naked proteins” (like the lovely drumsticks JO’s kids prepared in the last episode) instead of Tyson processed nuggets and preservative-filled, precooked patties? I could go on and on with possible causes Jamie Oliver might have chosen.

        Instead, though, Jamie homed in on probably the one food on the school lunch tray about which parents often disagree. That struck me as a real waste of his bully pulpit and it’s what motivated my post in the first place (remember, it was entitled, “My Problem With Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk” — http://bit.ly/iriT9D).

        If you have more to say, I’ll let you have the last word (it’s your blog, after all.) But there’s enough interesting debate here that I will go ahead and share our exchange on The Lunch Tray (with your permission) so that more readers can mull it over and chime in.

        Thanks, Chris, for the opportunity to comment and for keeping the discussion thought-provoking, as always! :-)

        • Christina June 6, 2011, 2:30 pm

          Bettina, while I agree that all of those efforts are absolutely worthy and would have been great avenues for Jamie Oliver to pursue, I think we need to remember that plenty of school-food activists were targeting chocolate milk long before JO made it a pet cause. So this argument really shouldn’t be about a reality TV show, you know?

          Sure, not every flavored-milk removal has been a success, but I’d want a lot more data (how long was it tried? what companion education was there? was anything done to address off-flavors? etc.) before concluding that it’s not worth it. Plus, as I’ve already argued, we need to get away from this milk-at-all-costs attitude. And that requires education in itself.

          I’m also not sure why eliminating chocolate milk has to be viewed as “shoving” something down people’s throats. Or, for that matter, as a “ban” (a word that inspires all sorts of fiery defensiveness). When schools switch from fried to baked chicken nuggets or from white to wheat bread, does anyone say the school is “shoving” that change down their throats? Or that the school has “banned” fried nuggets? No, such changes are seen as good things, examples of schools taking responsibility for making food better. Flavored milk shouldn’t be treated any differently.

          If parents want to send their kids to school with flavored milk (or squirt bottles), go for it. No one is telling them they can’t. But schools shouldn’t be providing it.

          [BTW, a note: Anyone who reads Spoonfed regularly — or even occasionally — knows I’m all about the dialogue. So I don’t want my strong POV on this issue to lead anyone to think otherwise!]

        • Bettina at The Lunch Tray June 6, 2011, 5:36 pm

          Gack – just noticed about 10 typos in that hastily written comment. I really do know the difference between “discreet” and “discrete”. I swear. :-)

  • Barefeet In The Kitchen June 4, 2011, 1:57 pm

    This, right here, says it all:
    It’s our responsibility as parents and citizens to ask questions and think critically. And to raise our kids to do the same.

    So many things ran through my mind as I was reading this article and the following comments. It all boils down to parenting though.

    • Dana June 6, 2011, 1:14 am

      The system expects us to hand our children over to it for twelve or thirteen years out of their childhood in order to be “properly educated” (a goal which they have yet to achieve–even straight A students in National Honor Society display an alarming dearth of critical thinking skills, it would seem), therefore they position themselves as surrogate parents of our children. If an average school day is about eight hours long, and the day’s length is twenty-four hours, and assuming that we all get eight hours of sleep, that’s eight hours out of the day that we have left, five days a week, in which to interact meaningfully with our children. The same amount of time the schools get. I am tired of the schools messing up our kids and then trying to pass the buck onto us rather than take an equal share of the responsibility that they are supposed to have, considering they take an equal share of the “awake time.” And if you ask me I think they deserve a little *more* of the responsibility since our children are required *by law* to be in their schools and the teachers are some of the enforcers of that law. Fine. You schools and teachers out there want our kids? We’ll go to jail if we don’t give them over to you? Then you can take a bit more than half the responsibility, and be adults and ON YOUR OWN decide to stop feeding our kids garbage. You’re the degreed and credentialed ones, right? We’re just the mindless machine idiots producing raw materials for you to shape into properly ideologized (is that a word?) adults, right? Do it, then. You shouldn’t need step-by-step instructions from us. You should already know what you are doing.

      Well… Except that there’s a little loophole in the forced-attendance law. And that loophole allows parents to educate our own children. And perhaps, *just* maybe, more of us ought to be escaping through that loophole and not exposing our kids to the junk-food and junk-thought cultures to begin with.

      I mean, what are we raising our children to become, anyway? Like us, or like people we don’t even know and who do not have the best interests of our families at heart?

      Do we really need to wait for someone’s permission to figure this out? What really makes me laugh is all the social conservatives crying about the nanny state when they give up their children to it each and every day. If your kid’s in public school, you’ve got no place complaining about a chocolate milk ban. You gave up your responsibility the minute you walked your five-year-old into their kindergarten class on the first day of school. You can take it back, but that’s going to require a bit more effort than exhorting everyone else to join the Tea Party. Sorry.

  • Nicole June 4, 2011, 3:22 pm

    Just another dietitian’s perspective: I wholeheartedly agree with the premise that we are doing our children a grave disservice by expecting so little of them and their palates. I recently attended a Dairy and Nutrition Council’s seminar that covered the “flavored milk in schools debate” and the entire audience seemed up in arms over the nutrient “losses” that occured when flavored milks were removed from school menus. What a myopic view to take when our job as parents, educators and dietitians is to teach children how to eat for a LIFETIME. We are raising a nation of eaters incapable of enjoying real, wholesome, tasty, nutritious foods because we are so concerned with day to day, and even year to year nutrient intakes. So frustrating to feel like a lone voice in the dietetics field, but thank you for your thought-provoking post!

  • Dana June 6, 2011, 1:23 am

    A few years ago I began purchasing a new brand of milk that is local to me because it said on the package that the cows were grass-fed, which as I understand it is unusual for dairy cows today. Normally they’re kept in barns and fed all manner of crap–including Fritos chips. I figured I was making a slightly better choice and didn’t think more about it.

    Early the next spring I was startled to discover that the heavy cream I’d purchased was bright yellow when I opened the carton. It also smelled like nothing I’d ever smelled from heavy cream before. Not bad, just very different. I thought it was bad at the time, but now I understand that’s just the way it is and I can expect it to smell like that every spring. The milk smells that way as well before I shake it if the cream in it is particularly thick–this dairy does not homogenize their milk. It’s difficult to describe–not offensive, just different.

    But the biggest surprise to me was going back to Kroger milk briefly one week when a half-gallon of it was purchased for cooking purposes just before payday. Kroger milk is just your standard pasteurized, homogenized, Fritos-fed CAFO milk of dubious quality. I’d been drinking it for years and had never thought twice about it. This time I took a mouthful of it and grossed right out. It wasn’t rotten, it wasn’t even starting to go over but it had a particular quality to it–or should I say lack of quality–that I now found offensive.

    It’s interesting, the differences between grain-fed and grass-fed dairy, and between pasteurized and raw. I have yet to try raw milk, but I understand that some people who believed themselves dairy-allergic or lactose-intolerant find they can drink raw milk with no trouble. Likewise, I suspect that a lot of kids who believe they hate milk are actually tasting whatever is “off” about Fritos-fed CAFO-derived “milk” from mechanized dairy barns, and if they were to try grass-fed dairy instead, even pasteurized (mine is), it might be a whole ‘nother story.

    The solution isn’t to remove all milk from the school cafeteria, but to introduce BETTER milk to the kids. They’re wanting that chocolate and God knows what other flavors (it’s been almost 20 years since I graduated high school–I don’t think I want to know) because they’re masking the lack of quality in what’s being offered now. Kids aren’t stupid. They know garbage when they taste it. At least the *sweet* garbage is still palatable, though.

    • Christina June 7, 2011, 2:00 pm

      Dana, I agree that milk is a real food and has its place in a whole-foods diet. We don’t drink a lot of it, but we do consume local, pastured whole milk that is low-heat pasteurized. That kind of milk, however (as you found), is a far cry from the commercially packaged milk sold in most stores and served in most schools. And that’s why I think milk in schools not only needs to be plain, but also needs to be more responsibly sourced and processed.

      Oh, following up on your earlier response to Renee: I agree with you about soy, especially processed non-organic soy, but vegetables are terrific sources of minerals when prepared well and served with fat. Long live kale!

  • Carol Plotkin June 7, 2011, 10:06 am

    So many long winded comments! I couldn’t possibly read them all, who has the time! But I think I got the gist of what people are saying.

    Simply, there are ways to change the shcool lunchroom without creating too much turmoil for parents and schools with limited budgets. I discuss using techniques called ‘Mindlessly Eating Better’ in a recent blog post http://rochesternutrition.blogspot.com/2011/05/how-to-mindlessly-eat-better.html. The creator of the concept, Dr. Brian Wansink is involved in a program called the Smarter Lunchroom Initiative http://www.smarterlunchrooms.org/. His premise is that lunchrooms can make simple and inexpensive changes to promote healthier eating among students. People will always get up in arms when you take choices away from them. So let’s make it easier to make better choices. Chocolate milk can still be available, but it should not be easy to find. What should be easy to find are plain milk and water. Dr. Wansink’s research is astounding! He shows that you can promote healthier eating in kids in the range of 50-100%. Check out the Smarter Lunchroom Initiative.

    Hopefully, I haven’t been too long winded! If anyone feels compelled to comment on my comment, please keep it short :)!

    • Christina June 7, 2011, 2:20 pm

      Carol, I’m fascinated by Wansink’s work and think he’s proposed some innovative lunchroom solutions. But I have a problem with the concept of tricking kids to make better choices. I get the objection to taking away “choice,” but, as I argued in the post, I think the adults in charge need to… be adults. And that, in my mind, means offering only good choices to begin with.

      • Alison June 7, 2011, 11:41 pm

        I’m thoroughly anti-tricking so I expected to be annoyed by SMI, but instead, I’m inspired. So much of what he coins as “behavioral economics” really seems to have roots in good design, which, rather than being mindless, is a deliberate application of principles. How would one design a lunchroom to optimize food literacy? Fascinating question.

        • Christina June 8, 2011, 12:23 am

          Alison: I agree that Wansink’s work can be effective in some ways, like placing salad bars up front, and making fruit/veggies more appealing by cooking/cutting/presenting them in better ways.

          But “hiding” chocolate milk (and ice cream and other sweets) strikes me as odd. I understand the logic — kids are more likely to take what’s visible — but why spend all this time and money figuring out ways to camouflage unhealthy items? That doesn’t teach kids to make good choices — it tricks them into making good choices. And that’s not a sustainable strategy. I’d rather kids learn why certain foods are better than others. Then they’ll have the knowledge to choose the plain milk even if it’s sitting right next to the junky stuff. (Or one hopes, anyway.)

  • Maryann June 7, 2011, 11:24 pm

    As I said in my post, I understand the argument on both sides. My point is do we need to BAN something that has been in schools for decades? Can’t we offer it less often? On Fridays? Do we need to increase the fear children already have around food? From my experience this makes the problem worse — and there are studies to prove this.

    And for your claims below, I would love to see the research you base it on in case there is something I’m missing. From the calcium absoprtion studies I’m aware of, the calcium in milk is well aborbed. And vitamins A and D would be absorbed from the fat taking in at the meal — it doesn’t take much fat to absorb fat soluble viamins. What is your research that sugar depletes vitamins. How much sugar? 10% of calories? 20% How many grams per body weight? Wouldn’t that include natural sources of sugar too? What research shows that sugar is specifically responsible for obesity? I like your blog and respect your opionion but if you are going to make strong claims like this, you need to substantiate them with good hard science.

    “But there’s good reason to question whether the hyper-processed, low-fat milk served in schools even makes those nutrients available. High-heat pasteurization denatures enzymes that help the body absorb calcium. And vitamins A and D (both added) aren’t absorbed without sufficient fat. Then there’s the fact that added sugar isn’t just empty calories — it’s an anti-nutrient that depletes vital minerals. And science keeps reaffirming that we’re fat and sick precisely because of refined sugar and refined grains, not because of the saturated fat that has long been blamed. So even reducing the sugar, as some advocate, isn’t enough. This isn’t just about calories and obesity. (And it’s most definitely not about “moderation.”) It’s about health.”

    • Christina June 8, 2011, 1:29 am

      (FYI: Maryann is the blogger and registered dietitian behind the Raise Healthy Eaters post I cited above.)

      Maryann, I think we might need to agree to disagree on the concept of “fear.” The way I see it, raising food-literate kids isn’t about deprivation — it’s about education. And that includes teaching kids that not every food is OK. Just because a manufacturer makes it doesn’t mean we have to eat it. (Or offer it.) Kids are pretty smart, you know? They can learn to reject certain foods without baggage.

      On the calcium issue: My point is that if we’re going to hold school flavored milk up as a vital calcium source, I want definitive proof that those nutrients are being absorbed. And since we know that enzymatic activity affects mineral absorption, that raises questions.

      To your sugar questions: I linked to several sources in the post (including in that paragraph you cite). In some cases you’ll need to visit more links within those links, but there’s a lot of information there.

    • damaged justice June 8, 2011, 6:52 am

      “…do we need to BAN something that has been in schools for decades?”

      Far better to ban the so-called “schools”, which are no more than glorified day-care facilities that fail to protect children from each other, or to educate them in any skill besides mindless obedience to anyone with a uniform, badge and/or gun.

      Stop forcing other people to pay for your choices, and they’ll stop caring about those choices. But as long as someone else is footing the bill, you can get their bottom dollar that they will demand the right to determine how that money is spent. If you don’t agree with their opinions, you’re more than welcome to spend your own instead.

      • Christina June 8, 2011, 7:57 am

        Yikes, Damaged Justice, let’s keep it cool, OK? And really, now, that’s quite a sweeping generalization about schools. And a sweeping assumption about people. And, wow, just a whole lot of sweeping going on.

  • Maryann June 8, 2011, 8:35 am

    Christina — I saw those links but that is not original research to back up what you say, which are very strong claims. I believe that when you make claims like that (you use “fact” in one sentence), you need to understand the evidence for and against it. I prefer to see scientific references instead of articles that someone else wrote.

    I plan to write about fear and food and the research behind how it affects people over the long-term — not just in childhood. Children cannot think abstractly until middle childhood — and so while they love pleasing us adults their mind cannot wrap around complex nutrition topics until they are older. This doesn’t mean they are dumb it’s just the way their brain develops. Just because a kid follows all the food rules doesn’t mean they will do it when they are older. Some will rebel and some won’t — as parents we need to be aware of the impact our attitudes and actions around food have on kids over the long run.

    And while it is very popular to write about WHAT kids are eating in school, why don’t we focus on the HOW? Why don’t we teach kids that eating is a priority by giving them more time to eat lunch? If you take time to read Wansinks research you’ll see it’s not about tricking kids — they end up making the choice which is much more empowering then taking choices away. And he has research to back up his ideas which we need more of. If we are going to make sweeping changes and bans we need evidence that they will be effective. Whether it’s banning bake sales or second helpings at lunch or chocolate mik, all things that have been proposed, I’m not for it.

    • Christina June 8, 2011, 9:53 am

      Maryann, believe me, I’m all about primary sources. Which is why everything on this blog is meticulously researched. Yes, I linked to articles, but some of those articles link to/cite the research itself. And I read that research before including these sources. So I’d invite you to check those links again.

      I’d also love to see the research showing that added/refined sugar is not an anti-nutrient and does not contribute to obesity and illness.

      As for kids and food literacy: Again, this is about education. It’s not about right or wrong or good or bad or “rules.” Kids are capable from a very young age of learning about ingredients and how food is sourced and how food affects their bodies. Does that mean they’ll always make the right choice? Or that they won’t rebel later? Of course not. We’re human beings. There’s no guarantee of anything. But that doesn’t mean we should skip food literacy altogether, or hold off until some prescribed appropriate age.

      I agree completely that adult attitudes and actions around food are influential. Which is exactly why I advocate the kind of food literacy that I’ve just described. Because too often adults send all the wrong messages — calling kids “picky eaters” by default, offering only “kid food,” equating food and rewards — and that is far more damaging than teaching kids that it’s OK to just skip certain foods altogether.

      I have read Wansink’s research, actually. (It’s sort of presumptuous of you to assume otherwise, you know?) And I’ve already said that I think his work is fascinating. I just happen to disagree with a lot of it. (See my earlier response to Alison, above.)

      BTW, I am so with you on longer lunch times. And I’ve written plenty about the how of eating. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also talk about the what. (And, while we’re at it: the where, why, when and who.)

  • Maryann June 8, 2011, 10:37 am

    Here’s a good study reviewing research from 1995 to 2006 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20047137

    • Christina June 8, 2011, 2:38 pm

      Thanks, Maryann. I haven’t looked through all the studies cited in this analysis yet, but I do know there have been plenty of studies since 2006 that link sugar to obesity, metabolic syndrome and other health issues. (Here are two examples from the American Heart Association and the Harvard School of Public Health.)

      I’m kind of surprised, actually, that we’re debating this. I mean, we can discuss anything you want, but added sugar is one of those things that people generally agree is not good beyond small quantities.

      In any case, my bottom line is this: No study is perfect. Research is conducted by humans, so by its very nature it will be biased. And we all know that special interests can skew results any way they like. So what it should really come down to is the food itself. How close to nature is it? How close to its original source? Refined sugars and grains are highly processed foods. They are far removed from nature. That’s really what matters for many people, my family included. And I think we should be considering that when deciding what to feed school kids, too.

  • Michelle June 8, 2011, 6:07 pm

    Would it be responsible of the school, upon noting that children aren’t eating enough fruit, to offer strawberry ice cream as a ‘fruit’ option? If it had real strawberries in it, along with added sugar and who knows what else…I really see no difference between it and flavored milk.

  • A Registered Dietitian in Georgia June 9, 2011, 9:46 am

    I work in School Nutrition and I have seen first hand what happens when you cut out the flavored milk. In an attempt to decrease added sugar we only served flavored milk two days a week for 1 school year. On flavored milk days, kids consumed three times as much milk.

    Flavored milk is not soda in drag. Not only does it contain Calcium which many children do not get enough of but also Protein, Carbohydrates,
    Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Phosphorus, Potassium, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin, and Niacin. Although fortified with the Vitamin A and D, we found that we were short on vitamin A when we did an weighted nutritional analysis of our meals. We added back the flavored milk in order to meet the vitamin A requirement for school meals. Soda only contains empty calories with no nutrients and milk is full of nutrients. Our flavored milk has 1 1/2 tsp of added sugar, the rest is lactose that is naturally occuring (it is in the unflavored also). That is 24 calories from the sugar.

    What kills me is the same people complaining about flavored milk in schools are the same ones that feed them McDonald’s for supper or send Caprisun in their packed at home lunch. We can’t teach them to eat healthy at schoo when they are feed crap at home. Kids I deal with have never seen many fresh fruits and vegetables and the only way they have milk is in sugar laden cereal.

    • Christina June 10, 2011, 12:29 pm

      Georgia RD: First, apologies for the late approval. Your comment went into spam.

      I can assure you that plenty of the people complaining about flavored milk do not in fact feed their kids McDonald’s and sugary drinks. You’re quite right, though, that schools are up against unhealthy home habits. But, if anything, that’s even more of a reason to do right by kids at school.

      You said “the only way (many kids) have milk (at home) is in sugar laden cereal.” OK… Then why would we want to give them flavored milk at school that’s… sugar-laden? You criticize plain milk in sugar cereal at home, yet defend flavored milk with sugar at school. That seems sort of ironic, no?

  • Christine June 10, 2011, 2:17 pm

    Hey, I don’t have a problem with getting rid of flavored milk in a school environment.

    But I keep coming back to this post not because of the milk issue, which is big and messy and has already been discussed ad nauseum above, but because of the orthorexia thing. I do believe that it exists, and in the person I knew who exhibited symptoms she was never diagnosed with it, but was diagnosed as OCD and I can see how these things would go hand in hand. Your title post is dismissive of eating disorders in general by equating drinking chocolate milk with a disorder which can really derail a person’s life if not under active treatment for it or other related mental illnesses. I understand your frustration with having an accusation of orthorexia directed at you, much in the same way I would be peeved as a heavier individual if someone accused me of eating crap all the live long day, when I don’t, or if someone called me a lunatic during a heated argument (especially as I have struggled with depression.)

    And to be sure, the media does make a storm over most things that have little relation to reality. To be sure, if obesity rates are rising it does not mean it is an “obesity epidemic!!” as though the obesity zombies are coming to eat your brains and make you fat. Nor will a BMI slightly above or even well above average mean that the individual is going to keel over in about ten minutes. Even though popular media would have you think otherwise. Likewise people who are interested in eating healthy whole foods are not immediately orthorexics.

    In March, for instance the Archives of General Psychology published findings that eating disorders were much more common than previously thought and that the median age for developing these disorders was twelve.

    And well, I guess my point is sometimes a little perspective and sensitivity is necessary when dealing with subjects as sensitive as eating disorders and mental health.

    (As an aside, I am sorry this is so so rambly!)

    • Christina June 11, 2011, 3:00 pm

      Christine, oh I think orthorexia is probably real, too. But, like any eating disorder, it’s not about food. And that was my point, actually. I’m not being dismissive of eating disorders — I’m saying that our national junk food habit is an eating disorder. And that chocolate milk in schools is a visible symbol of that.

      As for media coverage of orthorexia: I don’t mind the stories. What I mind is how people use the stories to further their own biases and agendas. So I wasn’t frustrated by the orthorexia comment so much as I was amused by it. (Thus the fun I had with my response.)

      But certainly no insensitivity meant! (And you weren’t rambly in the least.)

  • Teresa July 5, 2011, 8:56 am

    This a great point. #1 I was raised on a dairy farm drank (and still love) milk. However, the milk sitting in cartons at school tasted like–carton. I had to drink chocolate milk 20+ years ago because I couldn’t stand the taste or smell of plain white. #2 I am a healthy active runner/bicyclists that is not overweight today because I had chocolate milk at school. #3 My daughter has all the choices in the world on what to eat & drink because I home-school her. Don’t take choices AWAY from children! They will need to make choices their entire lives.

    • Christina July 17, 2011, 12:18 am

      Teresa, as I mentioned in the post, I’m all about empowering and respecting kids’ ability to make smart food choices. But we do have a responsibility to offer good choices in the first place, and to teach children that not all foods deserve equal billing. “Moderation” is the food industry’s greatest mantra and myth.

      (BTW: Apologies for the late reply. Just realized that I’d not responded to some comments that I thought I had!)

  • Jessica July 5, 2011, 9:43 am

    Best article I have ever read. Well written Christina. I agree with every word. Are you writing a book on food? Mark me down for a copy!

    • Christina July 17, 2011, 12:21 am

      Ha, Jessica, I’m going to hold you to that! And thanks for the kind words…

      (BTW: Apologies for the late reply. Just realized that I’d not responded to some comments that I thought I had!)

  • Christine July 5, 2011, 10:15 am

    I completely agree 100% with your blog. It’s all these people who disagree that have me so angry. I want them to go eat the food and drink the milk the schools provide 5 days a week for an entire school year. Then tell me it’s good enough for your kid. Especially that milk. It’ll have you sick to your stomach. If it’s not good enough for you, it’s nowhere near good enough for your kid.
     I graduated from high school last year and have to say not ONCE did I purchase lunch all through middle or even high school. All the food is completely repulsive. I packed every single day. I never drank the milk either. Its thick and disgusting and tastes processed. I remember trying the strawberry milk in elementary school, I took only one sip. It was like drinking pure sugar, even I knew as a little first grader that THAT is not what real milk should taste like. Why WOULDN’T you want better for your kids?! We need to set These kids up or success! I CHOSE to pack my lunch as a middle and high schooler. I knew that I deserved better than what they can unpackage and heat up.
    And to say it’s “banning” flavored milk. Well if you think your kid should drink that, provide it at home. Just because you want it for you kid doesn’t mean it should be available for everyone. It’s making a decision in the interests  of everyone, not just one single parent who objects to said “ban”. 
    For a lot of kids, the meal (if you can call it that) at school is the only (maybe) halfway decent thing they’ll eat each day, why not give them the quality they deserve?! If your just going to sit around and argue about statistics, you aren’t seeing the big picture. Kids can get all the junky or healthful choices they want at home. Schools should be the place where they will definitely get great, healthy quality foods. 
    As a kid I only drank chocolate milk on Saturday mornings. Once a week. It’s supposed to be a TREAT. And to say a kid “fears” food is probably the funniest/dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What makes them “fear food” is the people who are calling out their moms and dads for not giving them junk and questioning their healthy choices. Confusing them into thinking mommy and daddy are wrong. I knew it was confusing when I was growing up, but my mom cooked every night and showed me what good food/milk tastes like. It all really starts at home.
     Schools need to step up and play a role in taking actions toward healthy eating. I’m a kid of the public school system who was never once satisfied with what was in that cafeteria. None of it is good enough and I think Jamie Oliver’s actions are the actions of someone who legitimately cares about the direction American children head in. No matter how small this may seem to some people, he’s creating change and setting American kids up for a better future. He cares more than we do, and WE’RE the Americans.

    • Christina July 17, 2011, 12:28 am

      Christine: I’m impressed with your passion for and knowledge of school food (and kids and food). Please tell me you’re now majoring in food or education or some other make-a-difference field.

      (BTW: Apologies for the late reply. Just realized that I’d not responded to some comments that I thought I had!)

  • Alecta July 5, 2011, 10:56 am

    Kids will eat, and like, much of what their parents expect them to like. I was a picky eater, due largely to lack of exposure (by picky I mean that there were maybe 5 things I wouldn’t eat, among which were mushrooms, olives, overcooked broccoli). One I was exposed to more options, I embraced them with glee. My son considers brussels sprouts a treat, orders broccoli in restaurants because that’s what he wants.
    If a parent tells a toddler that a bagel is a cookie, the kid will believe them. It’s all about the presentation – a big pile of steamed veggies tossed with some pesto (dinosaur food) and asking the kid what they want. We have a generation pf parents who have swallowed the line that kids hate healthy food whole. And so we have people who think they have to “disguise” vegetables in frosted, sweet cupcakes and so on. Clue: that’s deception and when it’s inevitably discovered you lose trust, especially when the kid you’ve taught that veggies are gross twigs that you’ve been sneaking them in.
    Parents, be honest with your kids, allow them to dislike zucchini, but also present a variety of non-processed foods in tasty ways. Rub a chicken breast with a little Mrs Dash and cook it in a nonstick pan til it’s cooked through and browned. Serve it with chicken broth flavoured noodles and a big pile of broccoli (very lightly steamed, add a bit of real cheese if required). Then have a brownie made with real milk, eggs chocolate and sugar for dessert.

  • Francesca September 21, 2012, 2:45 pm

    Hi there –
    I just found your website today, via 100daysofrealfood, and I feel as though someone has given voice to the stresses I have been living with ever since my first child (a son, now almost 12) first started eating solid food. There are times when it feels like healthy eating in our society is always a battle, and I hate the negative connotations, but I’m struggling against someone/something at every turn. As you pointed out – well-meaning store clerks, grandparents, parents of friends (and then, as the children get older, the friends themselves). I do everything in my control to feed my children homemade food from the most reliable, healthy, organic sources I can find in my little midwestern town, but so much of what they eat is out of my control. It saddens me so to know all the crud that they have ingested over the years in all the settings that you mention in your own posts. Luckily all of our children attended (and three of the four still do attend) a Montessori school; lunches are brought from home, and even though birthday treats are the norm, there are no additional seasonal celebrations that require limitless amounts of candy, and the birthday treats are (usually) homemade by parents/caregivers who (mostly) approach food and eating the same way I do. But last year my son left Montessori to attend our local public school and I was absolutely appalled by the cafeteria food there. At his school this year, he has NO ACCESS to fresh water during lunch. It’s only milk, and, like you said, chocolate or strawberry, or plain, but he says the texture and taste are so awful he can’t drink it. He brings his lunch (most days) with an insulated bottle of water, but it shocked me to no end when he told me that he simply couldn’t get water at school if he needed/wanted it. And I have so many friends who just don’t want to follow through in order to make real, systemic changes, so they give up, and allow the Twizzlers during movie night, the McDonald’s on the road trip, or the artificially-flavored juice boxes at a soccer game. Every time you turn around, someone is making a bad food choice, and it is so disheartening. So, this was an incredibly, unnecessarily long way of saying THANK YOU for giving voice to my feelings. I know the web is full of information about good health and good eating, but there is something on your site, in your way of writing, that really speaks to me, and I am sending you this comment to extend my gratitude. Please keep up the good work. Thank you.

    • Christina September 21, 2012, 10:45 pm

      Francesca, thank you for sharing your story, and also for your very kind comments. I’m really touched by your words, and hope I can continue voicing the issues that matter to people. Navigating today’s food world is a tough and often frustrating journey, for sure, but so worth it. The more of us fighting the good fight, the stronger we all get.

  • Kristen January 16, 2013, 4:53 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  • Stacy @School-Bites.com January 17, 2013, 11:11 pm

    Francesca, I’ve heard the same thing from other Montessori parents. And in case you don’t know, the school is LEGALLY required to provide fresh, clean drinking water via a water fountain, water bottle filling station, pitchers and cups on the table, etc. This is something you can take up with the school: http://www.waterinschools.org/. I started a blog last year after growing frustrated with the food situation at my then kindergartner’s public elementary school. I approached other moms about it and everyone told me, “Don’t bother–nothing will ever change.” But I kept pushing and was able to help start a wellness committee, and we are making progress. So if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, I highly recommend being the mom to speak up and try to do something about it. It isn’t always easy and can be slow and frustrating. But it may be the only way that things will change. Christina, I love your post! I shared it with our wellness committee–perfect timing as the subject of chocolate milk had just come up at our meeting on Tuesday.

  • Dana April 23, 2014, 8:46 pm

    Thank you for this! I was so sad to find out they were serving chocolate milk at my son’s school. He is in first grade and I have tried really hard to shield him from the junk being forced on kids at school without making him feel different. Most of his friends pack their lunches as well so it’s not too much of an issue. They also sell orange juice, another drink pushed as “healthy” and fortified to the max. Why not just serve oranges? Oh yeah because that would actually be logical! I completely agree with you and thank you for this!

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