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Experts agree fat-free flavored milk is a healthy choice for children

June 8, 2011

By OSU Extension Service
For many children, flavored milk is a popular choice. However, flavored milk has come under fire lately as being a cause of childhood obesity and some schools are considering dropping the option of flavored milk.
Deana Hildebrand, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist, said flavored milk offers the same unique nutrient package of nine essential nutrients as unflavored or white milk.
“Flavored milk accounts for about two-thirds of all milk sold in schools,” Hildebrand said. “Milk, whether it be flavored, unflavored, whole, reduced-fat, low fat or fat-free, provides three of the four nutrients in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines identified as of concern in children’s diets, including calcium, potassium and vitamin D.”
It is recommended that children consume three daily servings of dairy foods, but research shows that is not happening. In fact, as children get older, milk consumption decreases and is replaced by sugar-sweetened beverages.
Hildebrand said this is a concern because the calcium provided by milk is needed for peak bone mass that is formed during these rapid growth years.
“Milk also is an important source of vitamin D, which is lacking in the diets of many children. Children who are deficient in vitamin D have an increased risk of rickets,” she said. “Each 8-ounce serving of milk, whether it is flavored or unflavored, provides 30 percent of the Recommended Daily Value for calcium and 25 percent of vitamin D.”
Despite the important nutrient contributions flavored milk makes to the diet, concerns about the potential effects of the added sugar and flavorings in flavored milk have raised questions about the role of flavored milk in a healthy diet.
About 60 percent to 80 percent of total dairy servings consumed by children and adolescents are consumed as milk. Of those servings, 16 percent are whole milk and 9 percent are flavored milk. Both whole and flavored milk contribute to the consumption of saturated fat and added sugars.
“The Institute of Medicine has recommended the school nutrition programs offer students fat-free or low-fat flavored or unflavored milk. A study of elementary school age children found that milk’s flavor was the most important factor in choosing milk and the majority of children select chocolate milk while at school,” Hildebrand said. “A survey of more than 400 family practitioners, dietitians and pediatricians indicated that the majority thought it was important for children to drink more milk, regardless of whether it was flavored or unflavored.”
On average an 8-ounce serving of low-fat chocolate milk contains 4 teaspoons of added sugar. However, an equal amount of soft drink contains 7 teaspoons of added sugar.
The dairy industry is doing research to develop flavored milk formulations with reduced levels of added sugar which will eventually be offered to schools. So far the research indicates that flavored milk in the 150 calorie to 170 calorie range per 8 ounce serving meets children’s taste approval.
On the downside, while these flavored milks may be acceptable, palatable and meet lower-calorie and sugar recommendations, these formulations have limited availability and can cost more to produce. Higher costs may further reduce availability for schools facing budget issues. Limited availability and cost of the most popular milk choices in school may reduce consumption of milk and the nutrients it contains during peak bone-building years.
“Overall, fat-free flavored milk is a highly palatable, nourishing beverage that can help children meet current dairy food and calcium intake recommendations,” she said. “The acceptability and availability of nutrient-rich flavored milk in schools is critical. At home, if you choose to offer your child flavored milk, consider purchasing a fat-free or reduced fat variety. It will provide the needed nutrients with fewer calories and saturated fats than whole milk, and less sugar than contained in other sugar sweetened beverages such as soda or sports drinks.”

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