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Got sugar?: Bend schools should give chocolate milk the boot 

Opinion over banning chocolate milk in the Bend-La Pine school districts.

Two local children’s advocacy groups, Good Hydration and Smart Food Initiative, recently asked the Bend-La Pine school district to remove sugar-sweetened milk and juice from the school cafeterias. They have teamed up with Dr. Stephen Archer, M.D., local obesity specialist and bariatric surgeon, and they have the support of over 100 local health professionals who have added their names to a letter to the school board supporting this removal.

So, what is the big deal about chocolate milk? A cafeteria without chocolate milk seems positively un-American!

Most of us believe that schools are a great place to teach the next generation to be smart, productive, healthy citizens.  It takes a village, right?  It is not the responsibility of the teachers and administrators to be the food police, but isn’t it their responsibility to avoid providing unhealthy food in the cafeterias and classrooms?

The estimated cost of obesity on the American healthcare system is $190 billion each year.  Seventy percent of adults and 30 percent of children in our country are obese or overweight.  Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic; there has been a 33 percent increase in type 2 diabetes among the American pediatric population in the past decade.

Researchers are sounding the alarm bells, telling us that sugar and fructose (fruit sugar) are major contributors to the development of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.  Fructose gets converted in the liver to cholesterol, and the body prefers to store it as fat.  Fructose also interferes with the hormone, leptin, which tells you to stop eating. A study published in 2010 by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are the largest contributor of added sugar intake in the U.S. diet.

If a child chooses a juice for breakfast and a sugar-sweetened milk for lunch, he or she will consume an extra 10 pounds of sugar per school year.  In addition, researchers say that children develop their palate early. If they develop a preference for sugar, their consumption will increase throughout their lifetime. Teaching children to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages is a significant step to avoiding obesity.  Should we ask our schools to steer kids toward un-sugared beverages, like plain milk or water? Or should we let them have their cake and their chocolate milk, too?

In Dr. Archer’s opinion, “adding sugar to food at every meal plays a part in the obesity epidemic.  Flavored milk doubles the sugar content and calorie content at every meal, for no reason,” he says.

In this case, it’s about access as much as education, according to Dr. Archer.

“Energy drinks are not available in school and kids don't drink them there.  They drink flavored milk because it is there.  Giving chocolate milk as an occasional treat makes lots of sense because it places it in the category of a dessert, which separates it from something to be expected at every meal.”

How much sugar are kids really getting from a carton of chocolate milk?

There are 15 grams of added sugar in one carton of chocolate milk.  That is in addition to the naturally occurring milk sugars. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero sugared beverages per day, and the American Heart Association recommends 12-16 grams (3-4 teaspoons) of added sugars.  For comparison, one can of soda has 20 grams of fructose and a Hershey’s candy bar has 26 grams.

Even 100 percent fruit juice may not be as healthy as you think. The schools serve juice from concentrate, which is void of the nutritional benefits of fruit. After the fruit has been processed, filtered, and pasteurized, vitamins must be added back in order to meet USDA requirements.  At that point it is classified as a sugar—not a fruit.

Kids need their calcium.  Isn’t the extra sugar better than osteoporosis?

Only 3 percent of men and 15 percent of women suffer from osteoporosis.  Many studies show that sugar consumption increases a person’s risk for osteoporosis, but the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics insists that the nutrient benefits of the sugar-sweetened milk outweigh the detrimental effects of the added sugar.  The following statement found on the Academy’s website shows a minor (insert sarcasm) conflict of interest: “The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics would like to recognize and thank our Corporate Sponsors for their generous support of the Academy events and programs.”

Those sponsors include The National Dairy Council, The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, The Coca-Cola Company, Pepsico, and Abbott Nutrition, maker of infant formula Similac and dietary supplements Ensure and Glucerna.

A 2009 press release from the Academy stated that low-fat chocolate milk is the most popular milk choice in schools, and kids drink less milk (and get fewer nutrients) if it’s taken away.  Never mind that children can get the same nutrients from plain milk or a 1-ounce stick of mozzarella cheese.

According to Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady” who overhauled the lunch programs in Boulder, Berkley, and L.A. public schools, milk consumption will go down initially by about 35 percent, but it will rebound.  Those school districts now serve only plain organic milk and water.  They afforded the organic milk by using large dispensers that the kids dispensed themselves.

The Bend-La Pine school district goes above and beyond the USDA Dietary Guidelines, which set the standards for school lunches. They serve fresh baked bread and have a farm-to-schools program. We’re not sure why their milk and juice policies don’t match this commitment.

Find out how you can support the removal of sugar-sweetened beverages from our schools by “liking” the Good Hydration and Smart Food Initiative Facebook pages.

Shawn Blount, B.S., R.N., works as a Hospice nurse and is the mother of two daughters in Bend-La Pine schools. She is on the board of Smart Food Initiative and works to bring awareness to dietary changes that can improve chronic disease.  Kristin Gonzalez is a mother of four, has a  Ph.D. in biogeochemistry, is a former biology professor and currently investigates the latest research in health and nutrition.

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