Skim Chocolate Milk: The Number One Beverage Served in the Federal School Lunch Program

School Lunch

Story at-a-glance -

  • The National School Lunch Program has eliminated whole and 2% milk, and now offers only skim or low-fat milk
  • Skim chocolate milk is now the number one beverage served in the federal lunch program
  • The USDA believes substituting sugar for healthy fat in milk is “worth it” to get kids to drink milk
  • Adding more sugar to kids’ diets while removing healthy saturated fat is a recipe for increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer

By Dr. Mercola

In 2012, the National School Lunch Program received a $3.2-billion overhaul. The changes, which are being phased in over a three-year period and began during the 2012-2013 school year, are now appearing in lunchrooms across the US…

While there were some notable improvements, like ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables each day of the week and increasing focus on reducing levels of trans fats, there were also some key failures.

Among them, whole milk has been banished and only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties are now available. As naturally satiating and appealing whole fat is removed, milk becomes a watery and, some might say, highly unpalatable liquid.

As a result, sugar is often added to the milk in the form of chocolate syrup to entice kids to drink it. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials consider this acceptable, noting that the added sugar is “worth it” if it means kids are drinking milk. And now, skim chocolate milk is the number one beverage served in the federal lunch program.1

In following with the federal lunch program, the Illinois’ Women Infant and Children feeding program is now offering primarily skim and 1 percent milk in lieu of higher-fat dairy. What’s the problem with this picture?

School Lunch Program Trades Healthy Whole Fats for More Sugar

First let me state that I do not typically recommend drinking pasteurized whole milk, even for children. High-quality raw milk from grass-fed cows is far superior (and raw milk is always full fat).

However, if you are going to drink pasteurized milk, there is no question it should be whole and not reduced-fat or fat-free… and certainly not fortified with added sugar… As noted by Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, in a JAMA Pediatrics editorial:2

“The substitution of sweetened reduced-fat milk for unsweetened whole milk – which lowers saturated fat by 3 g but increases sugar by 13 g per cup – clearly undermines diet quality, especially in a population with excessive sugar consumption.”

Sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to 183,000 deaths annually by increasing rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Not to mention they’ve also been implicated in the childhood (and adult) obesity epidemic.

On a very basic level, too, removing the fat from milk means that it’s more difficult for your body to absorb the beneficial fat-soluble vitamins in the milk. Furthermore, accumulating research shows that full-fat dairy products confer many more health benefits than their low-fat counterparts.

The Case for Full-Fat Dairy

Last year, a study showed that children who drank skim or 1 percent milk were more likely to be overweight or obese than those who drank 2 percent or whole milk. Even those who were normal weight at the start of the study were 57 percent more likely to become overweight if they drank low-fat milk, compared to those who drank higher-fat milk.3

And it’s not only a matter of weight. Other research has shown that people who ate eight portions of full-fat dairy products a day cut their risk of diabetes by nearly 25 percent compared to those who ate fewer portions.

This included foods like whole milk, cream, cheese, and butter (the federal school lunch program still serves margarine instead of butter). Besides lowering your risk for diabetes, previous studies have also shown that consuming full-fat dairy may help reduce your risk of:

  • Cancer: Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat found naturally in cow's milk, significantly lowers the risk of cancer. In one study, those who ate at least four servings of high-fat dairy foods each day had a 41 percent lower risk of bowel cancer than those who ate less than one.4
  • Each increment of two servings of dairy products reduced a woman’s colon cancer risk by 13 percent.

  • Weight: Women who ate at least one serving of full-fat dairy a day gained 30 percent less weight over a nine-year period than women who ate only low-fat (or no) dairy products.5
  • Heart Disease: People who ate the most full-fat dairy were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, according to a 16-year study of Australian adults.6
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USDA’s Crusade Against Saturated Fat Is Wrong

The impetus for removing full-fat dairy from school lunches is to lower saturated fat in kids’ diets, but the nutritional myth that saturated fat is bad for you continues to fall apart as a steady stream of new books and studies on this topic hit the media.

One of the latest works to challenge the old dogma is a book called The Big Fat Surprise by journalist Nina Teicholz, interviewed above. Her book comes alongside new research that raises questions about the long-held but false belief that cardiovascular disease is related to fat and cholesterol intake. Teicholz points out:

  • The flaws in the original Ancel Keys study
  • How saturated fat has been a healthy human staple for thousands of years
  • How the low-fat craze has resulted in excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates, which has resulted in increased inflammation and disease

In 2013, a prominent London cardiologist by the name of Aseem Malhotra argued in the British Medical Journal that you should ignore advice to reduce your saturated fat intake, because it's actually increasing your risk for obesity and heart disease.7

In March 2014, a meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, using data from nearly 80 studies and more than a half million people, also found that those who consume higher amounts of saturated fat have no more heart disease than those who consume less.

It turns out that healthy fat has been misidentified as the culprit behind heart disease, when all along it's been sugar. A high-sugar diet raises your risk for heart disease by promoting metabolic syndrome—a cluster of health conditions that includes high blood pressure, insulin and leptin resistance, high triglycerides, liver dysfunction, and visceral fat accumulation.

Insulin and leptin resistance is caused by factors inherent in our modern lifestyle, including diets heavy in processed carbohydrates, sugars/fructose, refined flours, and industrial seed oils. As recently as 2010, the current recommendations from the USDA call for reducing your saturated fat intake to a mere 10 percent of your total calories or less.

This is astounding, and quite the opposite of what most people require for optimal health! The latest science suggests healthy fats (saturated and unsaturated fats from whole food, animal, and plant sources) should comprise anywhere from 50 percent to 85 percent of your overall energy intake if you are one of the 4 out 5 Americans suffering from insulin resistance (overweight, diabetic, high blood pressure, or taking a statin drug). Once the insulin resistance is resolved you can swap in more healthy carbohydrates. Saturated fats provide a number of important health benefits, including the following:

Providing building blocks for cell membranes, hormones, and hormone-like substances Mineral absorption, such as calciumCarriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
Conversion of carotene into vitamin AHelping to lower cholesterol levels (palmitic and stearic acids)Acts as antiviral agent (caprylic acid)
Optimal fuel for your brainProvides satietyModulates genetic regulation and helps prevent cancer (butyric acid)

Who’s Really Behind the Federal School Lunch Program?

The USDA asserted its authority to set nutrition policy when it publicly declared that the purpose of the surplus food program was to "dispose of surplus food and simultaneously raise the nutritional level of low-income consumers."8 The actual law putting USDA in charge of educating people on nutrition was the Smith-Lever Act of 1914,9 which established Cooperative Extensions in each state. These are still active today. One job of the extensions is to educate the public on nutrition under the "guidance" of the USDA.

Besides the School Lunch Program, the USDA has been, or still is, involved with more than a dozen different food distribution programs. Such programs are basically designed to create a market for whatever foods farmers are growing a surplus of—NOT necessarily to distribute the healthiest foods to those who need it most. has a flyer summarizing the history of USDA food guides and nutritional guidance, which began nearly 100 years ago in 1916 with guidelines for "how to select foods," with a focus on "protective foods."10 This included 20 percent of daily calories from fatty foods, and only 10 percent of daily calories from sugars. The bulk of your diet was fresh fruits and vegetables.

Today, the USDA’s MyPlate nutritional guidelines have removed virtually all fats from the equation—despite advances in nutritional science confirming that non-processed healthy fats are crucial for good health, while processed carbs and sugars are the main drivers of disease. Again, the real reason why grains are promoted as a major cornerstone of your (and your children’s) diet is because that's what farmers are paid to grow in the US. There's a lot of it, and it's inexpensive compared to healthier foods like vegetables and nuts...

Meanwhile, the school lunch program is embroiled with conflicts of interest with the food industry. For example, the School Nutrition Association (SNA)11 is an association of food professionals who describe themselves as "providing high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country." So who are these "food professionals" exactly? Would it surprise you to learn that SNA's members include some of the largest junk food manufacturers? This includes:

  • Coca-Cola
  • Domino's Pizza
  • General Mills
  • Pizza Hut
  • Sara Lee and others

Children Need Real Food and Plenty of Healthy Fats

Children will simply not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them. Remember, wholesome food is "live" food, and the hallmark of live food is the fact that it will rapidly decompose. Processed food that can sit indefinitely on a shelf without signs of spoiling is a clear sign that it's just not real food and serves no beneficial purpose as part of your diet. It’s very simple: kids need whole unprocessed foods, not synthetic chemicals.

Food is a part of crucial lifestyle choices first learned at home, so you need to educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family. To give your child the best start at life, and help instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, you must lead by example. If you're not sure where to start, I recommend reading my nutrition plan first. This will provide you with the foundation you need to start making healthy food choices for your family, including basing your meals around healthy fats like those that follow:

Avocados Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milkRaw dairyOrganic pastured egg yolks
Coconuts and coconut oilUnheated organic nut oilsRaw nuts, such as almonds or pecans, and seedsGrass-fed meats

The simplest way back toward health, for children and adults alike, is to focus on WHOLE foods -- foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state; food that has been grown or raised as nature intended, without the use of chemical additives, pesticides, and fertilizers.

You, a family member, or someone you pay will need to invest time in the kitchen cooking fresh wholesome meals from these whole foods so that you can break free from the processed food diet that will ultimately make you sick. By doing this, and eating meals together as a family, your children will receive the proper nutrition their bodies need during the important developmental years while also developing a love for whole fresh foods that will last them a lifetime.