A national group of physicians has petitioned the U.S. government to take milk off the menu in school lunches.
Dairy milk has been included in school lunches since the very beginnings of the program, even prior to the 1946 School Lunch Act, in which Congress specified that school lunches must be nutritionally balanced. A battle over whether to include full-fat or low-fat milk was waged beginning in 1974 and into the 1980s, according to the petition (PDF), with a requirement for a dairy milk substitute to be provided based on dietary needs included in 2004.
The latest update (PDF), which goes into effect this month, requires that only nonfat (flavored or unflavored) and low-fat (unflavored only) milk be served with school lunches.
We’ve all grown up hearing that milk is a perfect food, so why is a national group of physicians arguing against milk for kids?
The petition, from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), states that it is scientifically proven that milk is high in animal fats, animal protein, and sugar (lactose), making it actually more harmful than helpful to bones.
“Research also shows that children can get all the calcium they need from non-dairy sources,” says the petition, “such as beans, tofu, broccoli, kale, collard greens, breads, cereals, and non-dairy, fortified beverages, without any of the health detriments associated with dairy consumption.” The petition recommends calcium-fortified soy milk and rice milk as good substitutes for dairy beverages.
The petition argues that “the promotion of milk ingestion in children is, in effect, the promotion of an ineffective placebo,” noting that weight-bearing exercise has as much or greater effect on bone density than consumption of calcium. Further, PCRM says that the high animal protein and sodium content of milk “leaches calcium from the bones.”
So, is milk bad for us?
“Milk is a food like others,” says nutrition, food studies, and public health professor Marion Nestle, of New York University. “It is not poison; it is not a dietary essential. I can’t think of any compelling reason not to include it in school lunches, but I also see no reason to require it. Milk demonstrably has nutrients. Other foods have the same nutrients. It’s just a food. Like other foods, too much might be a problem,” she told TIME.
What about substitutes?
A new study says that it’s possible soy milk may cause more cavities than dairy milk. The study, from the University of Melbourne’s Dental School in Australia, found that bacteria commonly found in the mouth produce five to six times more acid when they feed on soy milk, compared to cow’s milk.
Because of severe food allergies, two of my kids grew up mostly on enriched rice milk, which is fortified with all the vitamins and minerals (including calcium) of dairy milk. (My third child was allergic to rice, as it turned out, but could have dairy; my fourth was allergic to everything and had to drink prescription formula until he was three.) It’s important to note that while the enriched rice milk does have the calcium of dairy milk, it does not have nearly the protein content.
I’m not a nutritionist, or a pediatrician, I’m just a mom. But below, I compare the enriched rice milk my kids drank (unflavored Rice Dream), the leading brand of unflavored soy milk (Silk), and 1% low-fat dairy milk.
All are within the same calorie range, which incidentally is the same as for Coca-Cola (8 ounces of Coke has 100 calories). The dairy milk has more saturated fat (although skim milk would have 0 grams). The soy milk has fewer grams of sugar, and the fewest calories. The rice milk has the highest calories and sugar count by far, and almost no protein. It was still a good choice when my twin daughters were younger, because they needed the calcium and were allergic to dairy, soy, and high-calcium vegetables. None of these items should be used as a substitute for infant formula.
The funny thing about all this drama is that every child has such different nutritional needs. The ban on whole milk is kind of a bummer for me, since my two older daughters are medically considered underweight. They actually benefit from the increased calorie and fat content of whole milk. If you’re thinking about making a switch at home to a dairy substitute, you need to take into consideration your child’s total nutritional picture. Personally, I’ve got two kids on full-fat milk (and, per my pediatrician’s recommendation, putting heavy cream into milk shakes), one kid on skim milk, and one kid on soy milk. All four of my kids also drink plenty of water, get plenty of exercise, and eat a varied diet, so I don’t think I’m going to sweat the PCRM’s recommendations too much.
I recognize, of course, that most children in this country aren’t underweight. In fact, 1 in 3 U.S. kids and teens is overweight or obese, although somehow I doubt that low-fat milk is the cause of this. Regardless, I think it’s good to question the status quo, especially when the status quo involves millions of dollars of advertising. Given that the U.S. dairy industry is a $140 billion business, I kind of doubt the USDA is going to take dairy milk off school lunch menus. As parents, though, it’s smart to question what we’re feeding our kids.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch requirements, says it has received the petition and is reviewing it.
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto)