Dairy Industry Takes a Page From Big Tobacco’s Book and Targets Kids With Flavored Milk

The tobacco and dairy industries are spending millions to market to children. And while their products are very different, both have serious consequences.

Scientific evidence shows that “tobacco company advertising and promotion influences young people to start using tobacco,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Research from the CDC also found that the three most advertised brands—Marlboro, Newport, and Camel—were the cigarette brands most commonly chosen by middle and high school-aged kids in 2016.

Dairy companies and industry trade groups also market flavored milk to kids and their families through campaigns to “educate” consumers, emphasizing the nutrients present in both flavored and unflavored milk varieties, and even recruiting athletes like Olympic Gold Medalist Katie Ledecky to be the face of chocolate milk

Much like smoking cigarettes, consuming dairy has its risks. The heavy consumption of dairy milk has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer. And while schools are technically serving “low-fat flavored milks,” the fat found in dairy milk is mainly saturated fat, which is tied to heart disease, the leading cause of death for adults in the U.S.

Although the dairy industry tends to downplay the risks of sugar in flavored milks (possibly because many consumers are now more concerned with sugar than fat), most contain added sugars and according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), most children exceed the recommended limits of both sugar and saturated fats in their diets. Consuming too much added sugar can contribute to tooth decay and increase the risk of heart disease. 

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) notes that milk is already “naturally loaded with lactose sugar and plenty of calories—even before adding chocolate or strawberry flavoring,” calling it the equivalent to soda in terms of “unwanted calories.”

Part of the problem is that chocolate milk and other flavored milks may be linked in our minds with childhood. Anthropologist and author John Allen wrote of its ties to “emotionally rich memories,” noting that “drinking chocolate milk with your fellow students is a pleasurable communal event” that they carry with them even when not at school. With nearly 80 percent of U.S. school districts offer flavored milk, it’s hard for most public school students not to drink it every single day. 

But there is a dangerous downside to serving flavored milk in schools, one that industry groups, parents, and nutrition experts have been fighting over for years.

Big Dairy pushes for more milk in schools

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), like so many other branches of government, is not immune to the lobbying power of Big Ag. The program requires U.S. public schools to offer dairy milk as a part of their lunch programs. This stipulation is heavily influenced by the dairy industry, which sells about 7.6 percent of its fluid milk product to schools every year. Flavored milk accounts for two-thirds of those sales, according to a recent Bloomberg report

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has even mandated that water made available to students “shall not compete with the milk requirement,” spelling out ways schools can be sure not to “restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk.” If a student wants a non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk, a doctor’s note must be provided.

Under the Obama administration, school lunch menus underwent a few changes by way of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Act required that schools serve only nonfat varieties of flavored milks. A 2020 study found that the overall changes made under the Act resulted in healthier and more nutritious lunches, especially for children from low-income households. 

But Jim Mulhern, the president and CEO of dairy trade group the National Milk Producers Federation, has criticized the program, saying that in the first two years that low-fat flavored milks were not sold in schools, 1.1 million fewer students drank milk at lunch. Mulhern called milk and other dairy foods “integral to child nutrition programs in schools.” 

The American Dairy Association has stated that “removing chocolate milk has a negative impact on nutrition,” citing a 2014 Cornell University study of 11 Oregon elementary schools that found when chocolate milk was not on the menu, kids took 10 percent less milk and 7 percent of students stopped buying school lunches entirely. The students consumed less sugar and fewer calories, but also less protein and calcium. 

In 2018, the Trump administration reversed some of the Obama-era policies, putting one-percent fat flavored milk back on the menu in schools, a plan led by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. 

In 2019, the Guardian reported that the Trump administration “worked closely with the dairy lobby,” as the industry “pushed fattier milks into U.S. schools”—even as the USDA received public comments from over 83,000 people, 96 percent of whom were opposed to the return of flavored milks containing fat to school cafeterias.

The problem with marketing to kids

Flavored tobacco products, especially, are appealing to kids, so much so that multiple cities and states have enacted bans on the sale of flavored tobacco. A recent report from the CDC and the FDA found that over 2 million students in the U.S. are using e-cigarettes or vaping, and one-quarter of those kids are vaping daily. Eighty-five percent of the students used flavored e-cigarettes, most of which contain the extremely addictive substance found in other tobacco products, nicotine. Other recent research found that marijuana vaping among teenagers doubled between 2013 and 2020 with potential impacts on brain development and mental health. 

Just as tobacco use has plummeted in the U.S. in recent years, young generations and Americans, in general, are drinking less cow’s milk. In 2017, NPR reported, “the biggest hit to milk drinking in the U.S. may have come from teens and the youngest dairy consumers, kids ages 2 to 8.”

The dairy industry has responded by trying to fight the labeling of plant-based products and by targeting their marketing at kids and their parents. 

The Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) is an industry group monitored by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and, according to its website, is “funded by the nation’s milk companies.” In 2009, MilkPEP began promoting the inclusion of chocolate milk in schools through the launch of its Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign, and in 2019 the group helped dairy brands to market chocolate milk as “the official dairy drink of Halloween.” In its 2019 report, MilkPEP’s CEO wrote, “Kids will continue to be a focus for MilkPEP as we move into 2020 ensuring this critical segment, and America’s future parents, remain milk-drinkers.”

The American Dairy Association also has multiple programs encouraging schools to offer more milk and other dairy products, including its Hot Chocolate Milk campaign which launched in 20 pilot schools last year.

While urging the consumption of flavored milks, industry groups point to evidence that students are less likely to choose plain milk than flavored varieties. But dairy may not be the best choice for everyone.

Are there other ways for students to get the nutrients they need?

Dairy milk, including flavored milk, contains calcium, protein, and important vitamins, which are important nutrients for healthy growth and the formation of strong bones. But many in the field of medicine and nutrition do not believe that dairy is the best way to ensure that children are getting the nutrients they need. 

“It is not hard to get those nutrients from other foods” that don’t also have “the health risks of dairy,” Maggie Neola, a registered dietitian and the Community Nutrition Program Manager for PCRM, tells Sentient Media. 

“A lot of people don’t know you can get calcium from dark leafy greens and beans,” says Neola, who also claims that the calcium found in cow’s milk is less than ideal for growing bodies, noting a 2012 study that concluded active children who consumed more dairy milk had more bone fractures than the children who consumed less. Yet, industry groups push dairy products as not only beneficial to our bones, but necessary if we are to grow big and strong. The Dairy Alliance claims that these dairy foods are “essential for bone health at all stages of life.”

 PCRM has urged the USDA to “keep chocolate milk out of school lunches,” noting that dairy is also linked to gastrointestinal symptoms, and that lactose intolerance affects around 65 percent of the population, disproportionately impacting people of color. 

Neola also emphasizes that regular consumption of these sweetened milks and other products with added sugar can impact childrens’ taste preference. “If there are high levels of flavor coming from calorie-dense foods, we will crave those foods over time,” she says. 

In a letter published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015, three professors voiced a similar concern in response to the AAP supporting flavored milk in schools. “The kids I see in my practice, who are all low-income, are not just drinking sugared, flavored milk once a day at school. Sometimes they’re drinking it two or three times a day at school, because there’s breakfast, lunch, and then there’s snack. And then they’re drinking it at home, in part because it becomes an expectation,” wrote Dr. Diane Dooley.

In response to the persistence of the Trump administration and others to keep flavored milk on school lunch menus, the Coalition for Healthy School Food is encouraging the “elimination of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives in school food,” calling these “hallmarks of processed food” that do not offer benefits to children. The group is also calling for all students to have access to plant-based options, including non-dairy milk.

Giving kids more choices

As dairy industry groups and nutrition advocates engage in the fight over flavored milks in schools, we could be overlooking the kids at the center of the debate.

Neola says that while flavoring milks likely does make them more appealing as the industry has pointed out, we should not underestimate children and their choices. Many kids may want to see other options on their school menus that taste good, are healthy, and are not harmful to the environment.

How, then, do we encourage children to pick healthier options? “I don’t think we as a society do a great job of introducing healthy foods to children in a way that’s exciting to them,” says Neola. She points to heavily processed foods low in nutrition, such as chicken nuggets, that are sold in fun shapes that appeal to kids. 

But “we don’t have to shape carrots into a little heart to get kids to eat them,” laughs Neola, who suggests letting kids see healthy plant-based foods in a new light as one way to encourage better eating. “Taking kids out to a garden and having them experience where foods are grown” can be fun and help make these nutrition-packed plant-based foods more appealing, she says.