I’m writing to correct a huge misconception about banning chocolate milk in Santa Monica-Malibu public schools. I am a fully trained and board certified pediatric cardiologist who has grown up in Santa Monica and have kids who attend the public schools in Santa Monica. As such, I have a very vested interest not only in my own kids’ health but also a large number of kids in Los Angeles. I treat kids of all ages on a daily basis with premature acquired cardiovascular disease. I travel regularly as a guest speaker lecturing about nutrition and cardiovascular health in the pediatric population and feel I do have some credentials to back me up here.
Lets begin with why and how milk was introduced into school food programs. It all actually began in the 1940s and ‘50s when there was general agreement that the population in general, and especially kids, was very poorly nourished and that the goal of school nutrition was to deliver high-calorie, high-fat, high-protein lunches to our school kids who were clearly malnourished. At that time, there was no obesity epidemic nor was there concern over development of diabetes or significant cardiovascular disease. The milk producers did a great job of stepping into this dilemma and providing an excellent source of fat, protein, calcium and calories to supplement school lunches to an essentially malnourished population of kids. At the time, this was a brilliant solution!
Fast forward to the late 1970s and ‘80s where child malnutrition was no longer a widespread issue. Unfortunately, school lunch programs did not alter their primary goal of delivering high-calorie, fat and protein meals to our kids. At the same time, there was recognition by the dairy industry that dairy consumption was going down. Hence the development of flavored yogurts, chocolate milk and then later strawberry milk to enhance milk consumption. There was also simultaneously clear recognition at this time that calcium intake was particularly important for overall bone health.
Now that’s the history. Let’s talk about the present. I don’t need to belabor the obvious fact that obesity in 2011 has reached epidemic proportions. About 40 percent of kids are obese. In addition, rates of diabetes, pre-diabetes, hypertension and early cardiovascular disease that we never saw before is rising alarmingly. The predominate thinking is that excess caloric intake (especially excess sugar in the diet) as well as decreased caloric expenditure are to blame for this phenomenon. Many researchers directly link added sugars in the form of high-fructose corn syrup to the alarming trend toward obesity in America.
Studies have also shown that calcium intake especially in the young is critical. The milk producing industry has done a very good PR job of convincing us that milk in any form is good for us simply because it has calcium and that the few teaspoons of added sugar are not so detrimental given the beneficial and crucial aspects of calcium. They have produced very convincing studies that show that milk consumption goes down if chocolate milk is not offered in schools by as much as 35 percent!
In 2011, the most recent statistics by our own SMMUSD show that about 70 percent of all the milk consumed in our schools is chocolate milk (with as much as 2 to 4 teaspoons of added sugar) and the remaining 30 percent is low fat white milk.
So now the facts:
• Added sugar is bad. It is the major contributor to obesity in this country. There is no question that even in patients who are not obese, endothelial cell function is altered and cardiovascular response is altered. If you are obese the problem is amplified. What this means is that your blood vessels get stiff and that leads to cardiovascular diseases ranging from the heart to the brain.
• Excess sugar has been linked to increasing rates of diabetes and pre-diabetes. In my hospital, we traditionally used to see one new diabetic patient every six to eight weeks, now we get three to four per month. That’s a 600 to 800 percent increase! Some are obese, most are not! Most eat very poorly.
• We have several studies that show that cocoa in chocolate inhibits calcium absorption and actually enhances excretion. Implication is that chocolate milk may actually make you lose calcium!
• The extra calories from the added sugars in chocolate milk can amount to between 2 to 4 extra pounds of extra weight gain per year.
• LAUSD; Washington, DC; Berkeley, Calif.; the entire state of Massachusetts; England; Germany and hundreds upon hundreds of other school systems around the world have totally banned chocolate milk from their schools looking at the same data we have access to! They have been courageous enough to objectively evaluate the data and make a real informed choice!
In summary, the banning of chocolate milk is not the miraculous solution to the health problems our kids are facing. Banning will not single-handedly make an obese child regain normal weight nor will it eliminate heart disease or diabetes. Banning is not the only smoking gun! These are complex issues that need a varied and creative multi-front “attack” and aggressive approach to solve. Banning chocolate milk is a start to a nutrition plan that will eventually need to eliminate all “added” sugar beverages, increase exercise and educate our kids and families that one should eat healthy to live healthy. I ask for your support in this endeavor to ban chocolate milk for all of our kids and all of ourselves. Thank you!
Dr. Morris M. Salem practices pediatric cardiology and pediatrics in Los Angeles.