By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Should chocolate, strawberry and the state's official beverage, coffee milk, be taken out of public schools? It seems the trend against flavored milk is moving in that direction.
Some of the largest school districts in the country, such as Los Angeles County, have already done it. Massachusetts is ordering all public schools to eliminate flavored milk by 2013. Norton, Mass., did it this year, and locally West Warwick is getting rid of it too.
The big knock against flavored milk is the sugar. Once thought of as empty calories, sugar — both glucose and fructose — has recently been linked to some serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. The studies aren't definitive, but some school districts are taking a precautionary approach and not waiting for vetting from the U.S. Departmennt of Agriculture (USDA) or other health organizations.
The USDA is updating its school food guidelines as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Early drafts of the document don't eliminate added sugar from milk but reduce it to about 4 grams per ounce.
Rhode Island already follows that limit and doesn't have immediate plans to further restrict flavored milk's sugar content, according to Becky K. Bessette, the administrator for the state's Child Nutrition Program.
"There is a discussion across the state on this," she said. "Right now, we think the Rhode Island nutrition requirements ... put us in a good position."
Rhode Island had one of the most progressive public school food programs when it came out with its 2009 nutrition criteria. Gone are the lunches comprised of french fries, fish sticks and desserts of brownies and ice cream cups. Artificial sweeteners have been banned; fruit juices must be 100 percent juice. Rice can only be brown, cooked legumes must be served at least once a week, and there must be at least three fruit or veggie servings at every lunch. Milk is limited to 1 percent or skim and sugar was capped at 4 grams per ounce.
Donna Walker, food services director for the West Warwick school district, took flavored milk off the menu this year in anticipation of USDA rules that would only allow flavored skim milk, a product that doesn't yet exist. The new regulations have since been pushed back, but Walker went ahead with removing flavored milk.
"I said, 'You know what, let's not bring it in at all and see what happens,'" Walker said.
She heard no complaints from kids and received two calls from parents Monday saying their kids would only drink flavored milk.
"I want to keep the parents content, but I want to keep in compliance," Walker said.
While the specifics guidelines are being worked out, the current milk rules still allow for a hearty serving of the sweet stuff. The maximum sugar allowance adds up to 32 grams of sugar for an 8-ounce milk carton, the standard half-pint school container. That's a bit less than 3 tablespoons of sugar. Coke by comparison contains 26 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, or a bit more than 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Bessette called the chocolate milk-to-Coke analysis "an awful comparison." Nutrient-dense milk, she said, packs many healthy benefits, such as calcium and vitamins A and D.
Coke is all added high-fructose corn syrup, while about 30 percent of the sugar in milk is naturally occurring and perhaps less damaging to vital organs than pure granulated sugar.
Nevertheless, chocolate, coffee and strawberry milk can have up to 22 grams, or about 2 tablespoon of sugar, added for flavoring. That's the same as a Kit-Kat chocolate bar.
But health officials and the milk industry worry that fewer milk choices will mean fewer kids drinking the beverage.
"It's kind of a trade-off," said Annmarie Beardsworth of the state Department of Health. "(Flavored milk) helps get more milk into the diet."
Jime Hines, a dairy farmer and executive of the Rhody Fresh milk collaborative, agreed. "Any sugars that are added with flavorings are more than offset with the health qualities of the product."
Flavored milk or not, school food has gotten a lot healthier in recent years, said Walker, who has 22 years of food-service experience.
"I want what's best for the kids," she said. "We don't just put food on the plate. It's the whole big picture."