NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Despite its added sugar, flavored milk may be better for kids than no milk at all, and may even be as healthy as the plain variety, a study of U.S. children suggests.
Using national survey data on more than 7,500 2- to 18-year-olds, researchers found that those who drank flavored milk had similar intakes of calcium, vitamin A, potassium and saturated fat as those who drank only plain milk.
And both groups, the study found, got more of these nutrients than children who drank no milk at all.
One reason parents might be wary of chocolate or strawberry milk is that the added sugar might encourage excess weight gain. But in this study, milk drinkers and non-drinkers had a similar average body mass index (BMI), the researchers report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
The findings suggest that flavored milk can be part of a sound diet for children, according to the research team, led by Mary M. Murphy, a nutrition science researcher with Arlington, Virginia-based ENVIRON International Corp.
Experts recommend that children get two to three servings of dairy products per day, Murphy and her colleagues note.
"Access to low-fat or nonfat flavored milk could help children and adolescents meet the recommended intakes of dairy servings," they write.
The study, funded by the National Dairy Council, is based on results from a government health and nutrition survey. Murphy's team found that among the 7,557 children and teens those who drank flavored milk tended to drink more milk per day than their peers who only consumed the plain variety.
Compared with kids who did not drink milk at all, both groups of milk drinkers generally got more phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and vitamin A each day.
They also consumed significantly more calcium. Among teenage girls, for example, those who drank milk got roughly 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, on average; that compared with 576 milligrams of calcium among girls who drank no milk.
Some flavored milks contain artificial sweeteners, but most do have extra sugar and calories. While low-fat plain milk contains about 100 calories per serving, a serving of low-fat chocolate milk has about 160 calories, Murphy and her colleagues point out.
Still, the researchers found no significant differences in the average BMI of milk drinkers and non-drinkers younger than 12. Among teenagers, those who drank milk had an average BMI that was comparable to or lower than that of their peers who shunned milk.
Since the 1960s, U.S. children's milk consumption has fallen off, in favor of sugary sodas and sweetened juices, and some experts believe the trend is one of the factors driving the rising rate of childhood obesity.
Some research has further suggested that calcium or other components of dairy foods aid in weight control, though this is not proven.
According to Murphy's team, more research is needed to see how flavored milk, in particular, affects children's health -- such as whether it encourages a preference for sweet food and drink, and how it influences children's obesity risk.
Until then, the researchers conclude, banning flavored milk from children's diets "may only have the undesirable effect of further reducing intakes of many essential nutrients provided by milk."
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2008.