Q: What’s worse– giving my young child chocolate milk full of added sugar, or having him drink less milk since he doesn’t like the taste?
A: With the start of the new school year, the chocolate milk debate is raging once again and a growing number of school districts have removed–or are considering removing–flavored milks from their cafeterias. It’s a tough question and I can argue both sides of it, but my own research has led me to come out on the pro-chocolate milk side of the debate. In other words, I think it’s better for kids to drink sweetened lowfat milk than no milk or less than the recommended amount of milk (3 cups per day, or the equivalent), and expert bodies such as the American Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics tend to agree.
Available research seems to suggest that children who drink flavored milk have higher calcium intake and do not have signficantly higher BMIs than children who do not drink flavored milk. Furthermore, missing out on calcium during childhood and adolescence, when peak bone mass is being formed, risks setting your child up for lower bone mineral density as an adult, when it’s much more difficult to address.
Ideally, I would never advocate introducing chocolate milk–or any sweetened drinks– at home to toddlers and pre-school aged children. Your child is much more likely to reject plain, white milk if they’ve already been exposed to a sweetened version; their brains are wired to prefer sweet tastes, after all. Keeping a young child’s diet as low in sweetened foods and sweet-tasting drinks as possible (yes, this includes even 100% juice) is one of your best shots at raising an eater who will eat a variety of healthy foods and accept unsweetened milk, which is certainly the preference. And as with all new flavors, it can take several exposures to plain milk before a young child develops a taste for it, so if your toddler rejects it at first, resorting straight to chocolate milk without allowing him time to adapt to the unsweetened version over repeated exposures would be premature and probably counterproductive.
But if your child starts to reject plain milk as he gets older, I think the bone-building benefits of milk’s calcium–even if it contains sugar–outweigh the drawbacks of its additional calories and sugar. As a concerned parent, however, I’d make sure to look at the child’s TOTAL diet and be extra vigilant about identifying and reducing other sources of hiden sugar to help offset the added sugar coming from the chocolate milk. Juice, fruit drinks, soda, kids’ breakfast cereals, flavored yogurts, cookies, ice cream and other snacks are huge contributors of sugar to a child’s diet, arguably with less nutritional merit than chocolate milk. Making sure your little chocolate milk drinker sticks to water as his only other beverage, eats a low-sugar breakfast cereal (like Cheerios, Puffins, Wheaties or plain oatmeal with cinnamon), and snacks on healthy foods like string cheese, fresh fruit, sliced veggies and hummus, peanut butter on whole wheat toast or guacamole on whole wheat crackers will help offset the sugar from the milk in his overall diet. Giving your child at least one serving of cheese per day can also reduce the amount of (sweetened) milk he needs to meet his daily calcium needs.