During childhood and adolescence, kids' skeletons are soaking up calcium to build and strengthen bone. If calcium is in short supply during this crucial time, the result is weaker bones and an increased risk for osteoporosis later in life. Unfortunately, many kids don't take in enough calcium. Milk and milk products are the best food sources of calcium. And while moms everywhere are quick to encourage their kids to drink milk, some are hesitant to add flavored syrup or powders for fear of adding too much sugar. But research published in the June 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association should put moms at ease. This study found that kids who drank flavored milk drank more milk overall and did not have greater intakes of added sugar than kids who didn't drink flavored milk.

About the study

Researchers at the University of Vermont in Burlington studied 3,888 children between the ages of 5 and17. Participants were selected from the study population of the 1994-96 and 1998 USDA Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals (CSFII). The CSFII was designed to measure what Americans of all ages eat and drink. This recent, smaller analysis included only children for whom two days of dietary intake data were available. The children were divided into two age groups: school children ages 5 to 11 (2,763 children) and adolescents ages 12 to 17 (1,125 children).

Researchers measured the children's average intake (in grams) of flavored milk on two days, using a 24-hour multiple pass dietary recall. This type of dietary interview uses a variety of methods to determine what a person ate in the previous 24 hours. Based on the 2-day average of flavored-milk intake, each age group was further divided into 3 categories:

  • Nonconsumers
  • Those consuming ≤ 240 grams
  • Those consuming >240 grams

Researchers also measured intakes of several other beverages and nutrients. Beverages included all forms of milk, fruit juices, soft drinks, and sugar-sweetened fruit drinks and ades (drinks with <10% fruit juice). Nutrients included vitamins A and C, folate, iron, calcium, phosphorous, cholesterol, fiber, added sugar, total fat, and saturated fat. Within each age group, researchers compared the beverage and nutrient intakes among the three categories of flavored-milk intakes.

The findings

Kids who drank flavored milk had a higher total milk intake than kids who did not drink flavored milk. In addition, the kids drinking flavored milk had a lower intake of soft drinks and fruit drinks; however, fruit juice intake was not significantly different. Calcium intake was also higher among kids who drank flavored milk. But percent of energy from total fat and intake of added sugar were not different whether kids drank flavored milk or not.

Although these results are interesting, there are limitations to this study. First, the study is based on only two days of intake, so these findings may not accurately reflect typical eating and drinking patterns. In addition, dietary recall methods rely on the volunteer's ability to correctly remember what and how much of all foods eaten the day before. This may be difficult for some people, especially children. Lastly, this study was funded by the National Dairy Council, an organization dedicated to promoting greater consumption of milk and dairy foods.

How does this affect you?

Should you add a few squirts of flavored syrup to your child's milk? Sure, if that's the only way to get him to drink it. And especially if it will take the place of a can of soda or a cup of fruit drink. But if your child enjoys milk's natural flavor and she is drinking enough, there's no need for added flavors. While this study shows that flavored milk did not increase the level of fat and added sugar in kids' diets, it does not say that flavored milk is better than regular milk. Adding flavored syrup or powder adds about 80 extra calories to an 8-ounce glass of milk; a cup of 1% milk contains 102 calories.

Whether it's plain, vanilla, or black raspberry, what's most important is to get your child to drink milk. During childhood and adolescence, bones are growing rapidly and are thirsty for calcium to support this growth. Kids ages 4 to 8 years old need 800 mg of calcium each day (that's 2½ to 3 cups of milk; 1 cup of milk contains 300 mg of calcium), and this need jumps to 1,300 mg (4 to 4½ cups of milk) each day for ages 9 to 18. Most kids don't meet their calcium needs, in fact according to the US Department of Agriculture, 90% of teenage girls and 70% of teenage boys do not reach the recommended 1,300 mg per day. One more thing—choosing low fat milk (either 1% or skim) will help reduce fat intake.

Other good sources of calcium include:

  • Yogurt: 1 cup = 300 to 400 mg (check the Nutrition Facts label)
  • Macaroni and cheese, homemade: 1 cup = 362 mg
  • Parmesan cheese: 1 Tbsp = 336 mg
  • Eggnog, nonalcoholic: 1 cup = 330 mg
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk: 1 cup = 250 to 300 mg (check Nutrition Facts label)
  • Cheddar cheese: 1 ounce = 250 mg
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice: 1 cup = 200 mg
  • Pudding, from cook & serve mix: ½ cup = 150
  • Cottage cheese: 1 cup = 120 mg