Chocolate milk has an interesting rap these days. Endurance athletes increasingly love it as a recovery drink.
And who's loathing it? Schools — advocates for school food reform, to be more specific. They argue it's got too much added sugar and too many calories.
So how to explain the love? Well, a few, small exercise studies have found that chocolate milk can help boost endurance after intense workouts. Research also suggests that the protein in milk speeds up the time it takes for muscles to recover.
"I think in years past, you would have been a little bit strange if you drank chocolate milk immediately after a run. But now it's absolutely mainstream," says marathon runner Dan DiFonzo of Rockville, Md.
DiFonzo says runners are looking for that one drink that will help them feel better so they can run again. "Chocolate milk's been doing it for me, so I stick with it," DiFonzo told The Salt.
DiFonzo says that when he ran the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, N.Y., earlier this month, he had expected the tables of Gatorade and water. But as he crossed the finish line, what was he handed? A carton of chocolate milk, compliments of the American Dairy Association.
Adding to the intrigue over chocolate milk is a new line of scientific inquiry. Researchers at Penn State are studying the unusual way that cocoa interacts with a specific digestive enzyme.
"Compounds in cocoa inhibit the activity of the (pancreatic lipase) enzyme, so they block it from breaking down fat," explains researcher Josh Lambert. Basically, that helps the body fend off fat.
If it sounds too good to be true, Lambert says it's too soon to get excited over the potential of eating cocoa to manage your weight: "It's hard for me to tell if there's enough of the (polyphenolic) compounds in a glass of chocolate milk to make it that much different."
Whatever boost the good compounds in chocolate milk may provide, the bum rap it's getting in schools is due to the fact that it's usually loaded with extra sugar and calories.
"In my world, chocolate milk is soda in drag," says Ann Cooper, director of Food Services at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. She's also known as The Renegade Lunch Lady — and a leader in the effort to transform the way kids eat at school.
"Most of it (chocolate milk) has as much sugar as Pepsi or Coke, and it doesn't belong at schools," Cooper told me at an event sponsored by Real Food for Kids in Fairfax County, Va.
Lots of reformers are tossing chocolate milk out of the lunchroom. From Los Angeles to Minneapolis and D.C., schools have been eliminating or limiting flavored milk. Many see it as a small but concrete effort to address the childhood obesity epidemic. And even famous TV foodies are taking up the cause. Earlier this year, British foodie Jamie Oliver appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to make the case against chocolate milk.
Banning chocolate milk may sound like a simple step aimed at making kids healthier. But there's a long history of drinking chocolate milk (mainly, hot cocoa) in schools. Notes dating to the early 1900s from the School Lunch Committee of the Home and School League in Philadelphia show that a serving of milk or cocoa was offered every day as part of a five-cent noon meal.
And when schools take away the option of chocolate milk, it doesn't always go smoothly. "When we eliminated chocolate milk" explains Penny McConnell of the Fairfax County Schools, "we had as many parents upset as the ones who were pleased with it." Some worried their children would stop drinking milk and wouldn't get enough calcium.
So McConnell worked with her dairy suppliers to eliminate high fructose corn syrup and reformulate the chocolate milk. The skim chocolate milk she now serves has only 30 calories more than the regular 1 percent milk.
And what's the reaction been? "I haven't heard any complaints," McConnell told me.
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Another dilemma facing parents is whether to allow their kids to drink chocolate milk. Many school districts are eliminating chocolate milk from cafeterias on the grounds that it has too much sugar and calories. But another segment of the population, runners and endurance athletes, can't seem to get enough. NPR's Allison Aubrey checks in with both camps.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When Dan DiFonzo ran past the 26-mile mark at the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, New York earlier this month, and he caught a glimpse of the finish line, he expected the tables of water and Gatorade, but what was handed to him?
DAN DIFONZO: As soon as I crossed the finish line, I received my finisher's medal, which I was happy to see, but the very next person handed me a plastic jug of chocolate milk. It was delicious.
AUBREY: DiFonzo says he's always been a fan. As a kid he loved chocolate milk, but he says only recently have runners turned to chocolate milk as a recovery drink.
DIFONZO: I just think in years past you would've been a little bit strange if you were to drink chocolate milk immediately after a run, but nowadays it's absolutely mainstream. And I think everybody's just looking to find out, you know, what's that one beverage I can take that makes me feel better the next day so I can run again and chocolate milk's been doing that for me, so I stick with it.
AUBREY: A spate of new research studies seems to be fueling the trend. One study found that the protein in milk speeds up the time it takes to take muscles to recover from intense exercise. And another study, perhaps of interest to lots of us who aren't in the habit of running 26 miles, finds that chocolate may play a role in helping people manage their weight. Researcher Josh Lambert of Penn State says it's complicated, but he's studying the unusual way that chocolate interacts with a specific digestive enzyme to block the absorption of fat.
JOSH LAMBERT: These compounds in cocoa, these polyphenolic compounds in cocoa inhibit the activity of that enzyme, so they block it from breaking down fat.
AUBREY: Basically helping the body fend off fat, but don't get too excited, it'll take more research to see how big this effect is. So here's the rub: whatever boost the good compounds in chocolate may give us, the bum rap that chocolate milk is getting in schools is due to all the extra sugar and added calories.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN TALKING)
ANN COOPER: In my world chocolate milk is soda in drag. Most of it has as much sugar as actually Pepsi or Coke, and it doesn't belong in schools.
AUBREY: That's Ann Cooper, who directs food services at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. She's made a national reputation for herself as the Renegade Lunch Lady, tapping into the national angst over how kids eat, and in her mind tossing out chocolate milk is one easy step to address the very complicated obesity problem. Other schools are taking action too - from L.A. to Minneapolis and D.C. - there's a national re-think over chocolate milk. And even famous TV foodies are taking up the cause.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")
JIMMY KIMMEL: Please welcome chef Jamie Oliver.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
AUBREY: Chocolate milk was the focus of his appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")
JAMIE OLIVER: So what I'm saying is that the parents of L.A. and America need to start giving a (bleep) about what we feed kids.
KIMMEL: That's right. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
AUBREY: So it's a really good idea, right? You ban chocolate milk and schools are doing something to make kids healthier. But it's not so simple. At least that's what Penny McConnell of the Fairfax County, Virginia schools says she learned.
PENNY MCCONNELL: When we eliminated we had as many parents who were upset with us that we did it as the ones who were pleased with it.
AUBREY: Some were worried that their kids weren't getting enough calcium.
CLAIRE FEIDLER: I've tried regular, I don't really like it so...
AUBREY: Claire Feidler says some kids won't drink milk if it's not chocolate. And her schoolmate Zachery Dondershine agrees.
ZACHERY DONDERSHINE: I just think it tastes better. More people like chocolate more and it has more sugar in it.
AUBREY: So McConnell had an idea: Why not keep the chocolate and replace the sugar? She worked with her dairy suppliers to eliminate high fructose corn syrup. Her reformulated skim chocolate milk does have sugar it, but it only has 30 extra calories compared a half-pint of regular 1 percent milk. Mom, Diane Dondershine says that works for her.
DIANE DONDERSHINE: I'm fine with that. As long as they're getting calcium.
AUBREY: McConnell says what she has learned is that banning a food may not be as helpful as the much more complicated task of teaching kids to look at their whole plates and make good choices. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.