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Chocolate Milk Almost Accidentally Banned in Connecticut Schools

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Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said Friday he doesn't support language in a bill that would inadvertently effectively ban chocolate milk in the Nutmeg State's schools. His comments came after the proposal set off a swirl of conversation in school nutrition circles.

An education bill, approved by both chambers of the legislature this week included nutritional requirements for beverages sold at "school stores, vending machines, school cafeterias, and any fundraising activities on school premises" that largely mimic those included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Smart Snacks at School" competitive food rules and include some additional language. Those rules will go into effect July. The Connecticut bill would allow for "Low-fat milk or skimmed milk that may be flavored, but [contain] contains no artificial sweeteners, non-nutritive sweetening agents, sugar alcohols, added sodium, and no more than four grams of sugar per ounce."

The problem? While milk contains naturally occurring sodium, only chocolate milk has added salt. For example, the standard lunchroom carton of fat-free chocolate milk sold by Illinois dairy Prairie Farms contains 180 mg of sodium and lists added salt as an ingredient, according to nutrition facts listed online.

So what's the big deal? Why not ban chocolate milk in schools, whether or not it was an intentional effect of the bill? We're trying to make kids healthier and cut back on obesity anyway, right? If you're familiar with school lunch wars, you understand that these questions are super-charged with controversy. About 70 percent of milk sold in schools is flavored, and the most popular flavor is chocolate.

Folks like British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who favors overhauling most aspects of school food, argue that flavored milk, which contains added sugars, shouldn't be served in schools. "Milk is a great source of nutrients for kids, but the flavored varieties have more calories, are highly processed and contain unnecessary sugars and additives which don't add any nutritional value," a handout from Oliver's Food Revolution says. 

But others, including the American Dairy Council, argue that banning chocolate milk would lead to less milk consumption all together, which would mean fewer important nutrients for kids who demand added cocoa if they're going to consume dairy.  "Flavored milk can help children meet their nutrient needs, and can help children consume the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommended daily servings of dairy," according to a question-and-answer sheet by the Dairy Council. "Even though bans on flavored milk have been well intentioned, they may have done more nutritional harm than good."

The Dairy Council, of course, represents folks with a profit motive, but some more objective research has demonstrated that kids are more likely to drink milk if it's flavored. That includes a study released in April by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Some nutrition advocates say schools should still ban chocolate milk and work to compensate for any lost dairy consumption in other parts of their meals. Cornell is also home to the Smarter Lunchrooms movement, which has found ways to encourage sales of plain milk. Placing white milk as the first choice in coolers resulted in an increase of up to 46 percent in white milk sales, Cornell's researchers found.

It's unclear exactly how the sodium requirement made its way into the Connecticut legislation. Some Connecticut media attributed it to lawmakers' desire to comply with federal standards created as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. But those requirements allow for chocolate milk as long as it's fat-free, and they don't include any sodium limits. 

Photo: Different flavored milk cartons display their nutritional content values, from left: artificially strawberry flavored, lowfat 1% Milk, and chocolate fat free are displayed at the Belmont Senior High cafeteria in Los Angeles in 2011. Damian Dovarganes/AP-File

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