USDA Secretary: “I LOVE Chocolate Milk” (Fooducate: But why so much sugar…)

We just got off the phone with Tom Vilsack!

The Fooducate blog was honored to be invited to a first ever blogger conference call with U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack earlier today. The call was in celebration of the USDA joining as a partner in the  “Fuel Up to Play 60” partnership between the National Dairy Council and the NFL.

The idea of the program is to educate and empower kids to make healthier food choices as well as exercise 60 minutes a day. Over 60,000 schools have signed up to the program so far.

This is a win-win for everyone involved. The star power of the NFL athletes is a huge magnet for kids who move their bodies more. And obviously the dairy council is happy because low-fat milk is getting pushed to the schools instead of other, less nutritious beverages.

And while we commend this shift from soda pop to milk, we take point at the “flavored milk” options that are sneaking in tons of sugar to kids through the back door. The most popular flavored milk is, of course, chocolate milk. It’s also a drink that Mr. Vilsack admitted that he loves, deferring a question about the sweetness by blogger Eddie Gehman Kohan of ObamaFoodorama.

Unfortunately, an 8 oz. single serve bottle of chocolate milk has THREE TEASPOONS of added sugar. While consuming this once a day will not have a huge caloric impact (3 teaspoons = 12 grams = 48 added calories), the uber-sweetness has an unwanted side effect – suddenly apples, pears, bananas, and even the chocolate milk prepared at home (milk+cocoa powder) don’t see so tasty anymore. They’re not sweet enough.

In the Q&A part of the call, I asked Secretary Vilsack why not work with the Dairy Council to move the manufacturers to lower sugar levels. The response from Jean Ragalie, the Executive Vice President of Health and Wellness at NDC, was :

  1. the sugar in chocolate milk is only 2% of added sugars consumed by kids, so it is insignificant. (Update – here is the exact data: Flavored milk accounts for less than 3.5 percent of added sugar intake in children ages 6-12 and less than 2 percent in teens. To put this in context, soft drinks, fruit drinks and tea provide a combined 31.5 percent of total added sugar intake for children ages 6-12 and 40 percent for teens according to NPD Nutrient Intake Database (2 years ending Feb, 2009))
  2. studies show that children drinking chocolate milk are not gaining any more weight than others, but are getting more milk in their bodies, which is important due to milk’s inherent nutrition.
  3. Lastly and most disturbing, Secretary Vilsack summed in a nutshell: Kids won’t drink chocolate milk unless it’s this sweet.

It’s a vicious cycle. The kids get hooked on super sweet tastes starting with their morning cereal, then their candy bars during recess, followed by chocolate milk that must be as sweet. And more sweet as the day winds down at home.

No wonder the fruit served at lunch alongside the chocolate milk tastes so bland.

We suggested in the past, and still do – NDC, USDA – please work together to “convince” manufacturers to reduce the sugar in their flavored milks. Build a voluntary incentive plan to have manufacturers remove half a teaspoon of sugar  every school year for the next 3 years, and we promise to shut up about this matter.

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  • Ian Beyer

    My kids (6 and 4) already know that chocolate with higher cocoa content is better!

  • Nicole, RD

    USDA!? Congrats! That’s wonderful! Continue nutrition advocacy! Your hard work is appreciated!

  • Psychic Lunch

    We make chocolate milk at home with raw milk, organic cocoa, and stevia. My kids love it. We even add a raw egg yolk for extra nutrition. This is all healthy stuff, but unfortunately for food manufacturers it’s not something that can be easily replicated. The stevia could replace sugar, though – and should.

    • Becksusanly

      Good to know! Any idea of how much caffeine / per serving? Thanks! SB

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Drinking milk is disgusting and seeing the USDA partnering with big dairy to push it is too. The head of the USDA loves chocolate milk? That should count against his qualifications for the job.

  • Stasha Kucel MS, RD/LD

    I agree with you that the manuacturers should lower the sugar content of flavored milks. Fruit doesn’t seem like such a sweet treat next to the crazy sweet flavored milk. But keep the flavored milks! Just ratchet down the sugar content. :)

  • Frank Dobisky


    While the American Dairy Council has launched a $1 million ad campaign designed to encourage children to drink more chocolate milk, a Wofford College professor says schoolchildren should be encouraged to make a healthier choice and drink white milk instead.
    David Pittman, associate professor of psychology at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, says that if an elementary school student drank chocolate milk every day for a school year, they would consume more than five pounds of sugar as a result.
    Rather than enforcing an outright ban of chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk in the school cafeteria, Pittman and his students launched a “Making Healthy Decisions” program in a Spartanburg school. In addition to making healthy choices for food, the program also encouraged consumption of white milk.
    Pittman says white milk has 100 calories as against 140 calories for the same amount of chocolate milk and 170 calories for a similar serving of strawberry-flavored milk.
    To reinforce the healthy choices, the young students are encouraged to come to the front of the school cafeteria — after making a healthy lunch choice — and ring a bell to remind others that a healthy choice has just been made.
    The healthy choices program that Pittman and his students have introduced in Spartanburg schools seems to be working. They did an initial survey of student food choices, and then followed-up, finding that while the students’ food choices were not always healthy, the chances that they selected white milk to drink were much better. But, he noted, it would take one to two years of the program to determine if the choices resulted in weight changes by the students.
    Pittman also is hoping that Congressional action this year on lunchroom guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will aid in the fight to make healthier choices available to school students. The current standards, says Pittman, were invoked when there was great concern that many elementary school students were underfed and underweight. Less than five percent of today’s schoolchildren are underweight, he said.
    The current guidelines do not deal with obesity, Pittman said. (In Spartanburg, he noted, 34 percent of the elementary schoolchildren are overweight or obese, while only three percent are underweight.)
    If you’d like more information or to talk directly with Professor Pittman, he can be reached at 864/597-4644 or by e-mail at .

  • Cheryl Maietta

    Has anyone heard of Colin Campbell?

    His legacy, the China Project, is the most comprehensive study of health and nutrition ever conducted. And, he says there is simply nothing more toxic than casein (the main protein in milk) for humans.

    Dr. Campbell is the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. He has more than seventy grant-years of peer-reviewed research funding and authored more than 300 research papers and coauthor of the bestselling the book, The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health.

  • Danny

    Come on, Flavor is the reason to have chocolate milk. To just say remove more sugar and destroy the taste (even more) is not in my mind a good answer. I would like to see a NORMAL version sold with the original recipe, in addition to the newer low sugar versions. That way I could still buy one that tastes good, and everyone who wants the status symbol of low sugar versions can also be happy. I just hate needing to add sugar, and many times additional coco to a “ready to drink” chocolate milk to get it to taste normal. So I hardly buy it ready to drink now, and just mix my own if I want chocolate milk.