"How many of you have seen the ‘Got milk?' ads with Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings?" Angie Edge of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board asked a roomful of Lodi elementary school students, invoking the names of two Green Bay Packers stars.
Hands shot up.
In Wisconsin -- the nation's top cheese producer, with more dairy cows per square mile than any other state -- it's hard to miss the message that milk does a body good. Especially if you're a child.
That's because the nonprofit milk board, funded by dairy farmers, spends about $950,000 a year on talks, concerts, posters and a website promoting dairy's health benefits to school children. The group has challenged others' claims, such as a recent Wisconsin billboard -- sponsored by a national physicians group that promotes veganism -- that featured the Grim Reaper to suggest eating cheese can be unhealthy.
But the state-supervised milk board sometimes overstates dairy's health benefits, public records and interviews suggest.
An investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class found that the milk board promotes chocolate milk as a sports recovery beverage for children and teenagers, although related studies have mostly focused on adult athletes.
In some materials, the milk board also recommends children consume three to four servings of dairy a day, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends just three servings for teenagers and children over age 9, and fewer for those 8 and younger. Nutrition experts from Harvard University, New York University and the Mayo Clinic said three to four servings aren't necessary.
A milk board spokesman defended the group's conduct.
"Dairy's role in a healthy diet for all Americans has long been established by the science and nutrition community," said Patrick Geoghegan, the board's senior vice president of corporate communications. "All the dietary guidance provided to students and consumers by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board ... is based on sound, often peer-reviewed research that's continually updated."
Promoting chocolate milk is a major part of the board's marketing effort towards children and teenagers, touting it as a natural sports drink. "Muscles fueled with chocolate milk are muscles fueled with nutritious energy," states a brochure for parents.
According to the board's most recent annual report, during the 2009-2010 school year, it sent 90 percent of Wisconsin schools promotional materials such as a stand-up poster of Jennings, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver, holding a glass of chocolate milk, and planned to give six high schools chocolate milk for the 2010 football season.
The group reinforces the messages during school visits. "Have you heard the research that chocolate milk is the ultimate sports beverage?" Edge asked students last April at Lodi Elementary School, 25 miles north of Madison.
Several small studies, mostly funded by dairy groups, have found that drinking chocolate milk can enhance recovery after exercising. But they focused on adult athletes with higher calorie needs, not children. Almost 28 percent of Wisconsin children were obese in 2007.
The topic of flavored milks in schools has taken central stage in recent childhood obesity debates. Last June, the Los Angeles Unified School District became the largest in the nation to ban them from school menus. A few months later, the Madison Metropolitan School District took chocolate milk off of the menu for breakfast, though it is still available for lunch.
Researchers haven't tried to pinpoint flavored milk's role in obesity, partly because few children drink it exclusively, Yale University children's obesity expert Marlene Schwartz wrote in an email interview.
But Jennifer Nelson, director of clinical dietetics at the Mayo Clinic, said offering children too many sugary foods can foster long-term preferences for sweets.
"My preference is taking the longer view of establishing dietary patterns," she added. "Maybe we have chocolate milk Wednesdays, but why do we need chocolate milk every day?"
Dale Schoeller, an obesity expert and nutritional sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said there's no way to pinpoint a single food as a culprit in the obesity epidemic.
"Milk is a highly nutritious food," Schoeller added. "It is one of the major sources of calcium in a child's diet and a good source of protein."
Schoeller said he wasn't overly concerned about the frequency of chocolate milk served in schools, especially in light of new, lower-sugar chocolate milk formulas.
This fall, Dean Foods Company, which supplies milk to about 120 Wisconsin school districts, switched to a reduced-calorie chocolate milk formula that's 1-percent or fat-free with no high-fructose corn syrup, Dean spokesman Jamaison Schuler wrote in an email interview. A cup of the fat-free version has 130 calories and 22 grams of sugar - 40 calories and 10 grams of sugar more than plain milk.
When asked the reason for creating the new recipe, Schuler said that over the past decade, consumers have increasingly preferred less sugar, fewer calories and no high-fructose corn syrup.
Chocolate milk proponents say the added flavor makes children more likely to drink milk. The milk board cites a 2009 study, funded by the dairy group that runs the "Got milk?" advertising campaign, that found school children drank 35 percent less milk when flavored milk was off the menu.
Marketers need to "stop sending the message that children will only eat healthy foods that have been reformulated with added sugar," Yale's Schwartz responded. "Sugared cereals, highly sugared yogurts and flavored milks are all examples of otherwise healthy foods that now have ‘kids' versions' heavily marketed to children and their parents."
The state Department of Public Instruction doesn't track chocolate milk sales, but spokesman Patrick Gasper said menu analyses suggest about 75 percent of milk sold in Wisconsin schools is chocolate.
"I have 24 kids in my classroom and at snack time, 23 have chocolate milk and one has plain," said Tricia Kuluvar, who teaches sixth grade at Waunakee Intermediate School. "And that's consistent every year."
How much milk is healthy for children to drink each day? The milk board website states that "increased dairy consumption" leads to higher bone density later in life and a lower risk of osteoporosis, or weak, fracture-prone bones.
At Lodi, Edge told students they should drink three to four glasses of milk "every single day" for strong bones, while the board's poster for students recommends "three-four glasses a day for a healthy and hard-working body."
Milk board representatives gave similar presentations to 30,865 elementary students during the 2009-2010 school year, and sponsored "iRock with Milk" concerts for more than 6,000 middle schoolers, according to the board's annual report.
The milk board's Geoghegan said dozens of groups and individuals support its recommendations, including the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the American Medical Association.
In fact, however, these groups mostly frame their guidance in terms of amounts of calcium to consume, not a preferred source for the nutrient. For example, the Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that children and teenagers get 500 to 1,300 milligrams of calcium daily, depending on their age. (A cup of milk contains about 300 milligrams.)
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes similar recommendations for calcium consumption and notes that good sources of the mineral include dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, almonds and calcium-fortified orange juice, soy beverages and cereal.
The USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults and children ages 9 and older consume three cups per day of fat-free or low-fat "milk and milk products," including fortified soy milk. The USDA recommends two-and-a-half cups daily for 4- to 8-year-olds and two cups daily for younger children.
Some research supports the milk board's recommendations. A 2003 study on 28 teenage male weight lifters found that boys who drank three servings of milk a day for 12 weeks produced more bone mass than those who drank juice.
But several leading experts said so much milk isn't needed.
"The so-called calcium requirement in the United States is based on very short-term studies (that are) irrelevant to long-term calcium needs," Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in an email interview about the federal government's recommended dietary calcium levels.
Long-term studies show consuming more than one serving of dairy a day doesn't further decrease the risk of weak bones or fractures, Willett added.
And the Mayo Clinic's Nelson said even being vegan doesn't increase that risk.
"We know that those individuals who avoid milk and animal products that contain calcium do just fine in terms of their growth, their development, and their bone health," she said.
Nelson said that's because vegan diets can be rich in other foods that are good calcium sources.
"The profile of the vegan diet also helps you conserve calcium," she added. "The person who eats a lot of meat or a high animal-protein diet has a tendency to lose more calcium ... it's a metabolic process that's quite complex."
Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University and author of six books on food politics, criticized the milk board's claims.
She wrote in an email interview: "I wonder how the marketing board explains why the highest rates of osteoporosis are found in countries that drink the most milk, or how cows manage to make huge bones that support their weight while eating mostly grass?"
"It's hard not to be sarcastic about this kind of marketing," Nestle added. "Milk is a fine food if you like it, but it is not an essential nutrient."
Amy Karon is a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Catherine Martin, Jessica Gressa, Andrew Golden and Eric Skvirsky contributed reporting in a UW-Madison journalism class taught by Professor Deborah Blum, in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center. The Center also collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.