| By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
The U.S. dairy industry spends millions trying to convince parents that medical professionals are firmly behind feeding kids milk spiked with sugar as a healthful way to deliver calcium and Vitamin D. Dairy interests pay for "research" that conveniently delivers the message that chocolate milk is a better choice than Coke. Proxies such as the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association then make sweeping statements implying that physicians approve kids drinking unlimited amounts of milk that tastes like candy.
It's all part of a well-oiled public relations campaign that deftly obscures the truth about how various medical groups approach sugar in food. The dairy industry has a lot riding on keeping things murky: For decades, milk sales have been plummeting, but sales of flavored milk have tripled. It would be very helpful indeed if the nation's medical doctors all stood behind the dairy industry's campaign to put a carton of chocolate milk on every kid's cafeteria tray.
In this first report on the actual policies of various medical groups the dairy industry calls allies, I look at how the American Heart Association, once pre-occupied with the fat Americans eat, is now focused on the risks of heart disease and other dangers posed by the excessive amounts of sugar we and our children consume--including flavored milk.
Read closely and you may find that your child already is drinking more chocolate milk at school than the heart association thinks wise.
In 2009, the heart association issued guidelines on sugar urging that men consume no more than 150 calories worth of "added sugar" daily, and women no more than 100. To put that into perspective, 150 calories of sugar represents the amount in 10 teaspoons, or a bit less than the sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.
The heart association reasons that Americans already eat too much and exercise too little. We therefore have little room for "discretionary" calories in the form of sugar, which has no nutritional value. If you are an average sort of guy, consider that can of Coke your entire allotment of sugar for the day.
In January of this year, the association in its journal Circulation published an article identifying cardio-vascular risks for adolescents who eat too much sugar. A third of all U.S. children are overweight or obese. On average they get more than 21 percent of their calories from "added" sugars, meaning sugars that don't occur naturally in food--such as the sugar in an apple--but are put there by the food industry to sell product. (Manufacturers aren't required to identify how much sugar they've added to prepared foods, but consumers can get a fair idea by reading ingredient and nutrition labels carefully.)
A detailed survey of 2157 adolescents aged 12 to 18, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in the years 1999 to 2004, revealed that sugar consumption was positively correlated with several key risks of cardio-vascular disease, including increased triglyceride levels, suppressed HDL ("good" cholesterol) and elevated LDL ("bad" cholesterol). Researchers pointed to an emerging body of science linking sugar and refined carbohydrates with these and other health risks, such as insulin resistance--a precursor to diabetes--and increased fat production by the liver. They said the federal government's position on sugar was out of date.
"In 1986, the Sugars Task Force of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a review of the research then available and concluded that there was no conclusive evidence of an association between sugar consumption and (cardio-vascular disease) or its risk factors," the researchers said. "Since then, the results of several new epidemiological studies and short- and long-term experimentsal studies have provided more evidence linking the intake of carbohydrates and sugars (particularly fructose) and increased risk of (cardio-vascular disease). And importantly, consumption of added sugars has risen substantially since the research reviewed in the Sugar Task force report was done."
According to the heart association, no more than half of discretionary calories--those beyond what are needed to provide proper nutrition--should be consumed as sugar. For children, figuring out what that means can be tricky, since kids come in all shapes and sizes and have different energy and nutritional needs depending on how old and how active they are. Along with its "food pyramid," the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published a chart indicating the discretionary calorie allowances for children of different age and activitiy levels.
For instance, an 11-year-old girl who gets less than 30 minutes worth of "moderate exercise" most days would be allowed 130 discretionary calories. According to the heart association, only half of those--65--should come from sugar. By comparison, a typical eight-ounce serving of chocolate milk contains 14 grams of added sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which translates as 3.5 teaspoons or 52.5 calories.
This girl might well have a container of chocolate milk for breakfast. But a second container at lunch would put her 40 calories over her sugar limit--and that represents all the sugar the heart association thinks she should be eating the entire day. In other words, no cupcake at her classmate's birthday party, no soda on the way home, no ice cream for dessert after dinner, no sucking on a lollipop while watching television.
By contrast, a 16-year-old boy who is very active--meaning he gets at least 60 minutes worth of moderate physical activity most days--would be entitled to 650 discretionary calories, half of those--325--from sugar. That represents a much bigger flavored milk allowance--more than six eight-ounce cartons of chocolate milk.
The point is that millions of children already are drinking too much flavored milk at school. Some are taking it at breakfast, lunch and in supper programs--three times a day--then stopping at a convenience store for a 24-ounce Coke containing 290 calories worth of high-fructose corn syrup to drink on the way home. Is it any wonder kids are obese?
The heart association recommends that Americans limit their consumption of sugary beverages--including sodas, sports drinks and ice teas--to no more than 36 ounces per week.
In April of this year, the association urged the USDA to impose a limit on the amount of sugar in school food, something the agency in all the rules and regulations governing the school meals program has never attempted before. The heart association suggests that new school meal guidelines, now pending, should restrict a single serving of milk to 130 calories or less to hold down the sugar content, and cereal to no more than 7 grams of total sugar. (A 1.25-ounce serving of Kellogg's Raisin Bran contains 11 grams of sugar.)
The association says it is disappointed the USDA would allow schools to serve half of all fruits portions as juice. Too much sugar. It would rather schools serve exclusively whole fruit.
"It just makes sense if you're asking the American public to reduce sugars you wouldn't add more sugar than needed to flavored milk," said heart association science advisor Dorothea Vafiadis. "There has to be a limit."