Health Watch
by Jean Ragalie
The role sugars and sugar substitutes play in healthy diets has been debated for years, especially in children’s diets. With childhood obesity rates growing, the July 2006 deadline to have school wellness policies in place fast approaching, and many expert organizations recommending children reduce intakes of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, strong opinions about sweeteners abound. A particularly intense debate is focused on sweetened beverages for children in the school setting. 
One result of the debate related to sugar and children: Last month, the nation’s largest beverage distributors agreed to halt nearly all soda sales to public schools. Under the agreement, the companies agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice and lowfat white or flavored milks to elementary and middle schools.
Flavored milk shouldn’t be a casualty of the sugar debate. Research shows that 77 percent of children ages 9 to 19 do not meet recommended dairy intake of 3 daily servings of dairy foods. As elementary school-age children enter adolescence, milk consumption decreases as they switch from milk to soft drinks. Further, research conducted by the School Nutrition Association and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) shows that children drink more milk when schools offer it in a variety of flavors, in plastic, resealable bottles of different sizes, and served ice-cold.
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines state that small amounts of sugars added to nutrient-dense foods like reduced-fat milk may increase their appeal and improve nutrient intake without adding excessive calories. The recent American Academy of Pediatrics report on calcium and bone health states that lowfat or fat-free white or flavored milk containing modest amounts of added sweeteners are good calcium choices for children. Sugar substitutes can help meet additional consumer needs; the FDA has shown five sugar substitutes (saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, and sucralose) to be safe for adults and children.
Nutrient-rich milk, including flavored milk, is essential to offer in schools to help kids get the nutrition they need. And as part of our role to help increase milk consumption on behalf of the nation’s dairy producers, we continue to examine how to proactively address the heightened awareness about school nutrition.
DMI consumer and thought-leader research indicates that parents, pediatricians, registered dietitians and school leaders support offering flavored milk in schools. However, this research also indicates they would like choices containing moderate amounts of added sugars, and they are less accepting of sugar substitutes, especially in products for children younger than 12 years. 
Preliminary research from another DMI study found that among kids, the level of sweetness in flavored milk is not the primary driver for how much they like it; more sugar isn’t necessarily better. Among children, chocolate milks containing moderate sugar levels (25g total) were well-liked, and a yet unknown “set” of flavor attributes together make chocolate milk appealing. DMI plans to build on these findings and develop reduced-sugar flavored milk formulations to share with the industry that are popular with kids, parents and school leaders.
Product innovation can help flavored milk maintain a competitive position within the school environment by increasing choices to meet needs for nutrition, taste and cost, including choices containing fewer calories and less sugar.
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Jean Ragalie, R.D., is executive vice president of public, nutrition and corporate affairs for Dairy Management Inc.
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