Milk provides essential nutrients, tastes great and, according to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee, “consumption of dairy foods provides numerous health benefits including lower risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and obesity.” These health benefits are backed up by a body of nutrition research from both industry and non-industry funded studies. While we stand behind our research and know that it’s conducted in a scientifically sound manner, it’s always nice to see non-dairy industry funded research projects addressing similar research questions. On October 5th at the annual Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) in Nashville, Tenn., I attended a session where results from such a study were presented.
During the session “Want Milk: Exploring Students Milk Preference and Perceptions,” researchers from the Institute of Child Nutrition at University of Southern Mississippi presented data on what factors influence student milk consumption. In this multi-center study, researchers working in 30 different school districts throughout the U.S. conducted focus groups with students and school nutrition professionals in order to assess student perception of milk, milk consumption practices (e.g., whether or not milk is consumed with meals), as well as to identify school cafeteria factors that may enhance or inhibit milk consumption.
Researchers found that elementary and middle school children believed milk is important and recognized that it helps build strong bones and teeth and allows for optimal growth, yet only half of 3rd-5th grade students and 57 percent of 7th grade students believed they drink enough milk. Interestingly 78 percent of the school nutrition staff believed that their students drank adequate amounts of milk.
So while children are aware of the potential benefits that dairy foods can provide, this knowledge is not translated into action. Factors identified by the researchers that appeared to influence the children’s milk consumption included:
- Packaging: Paper cartons can be difficult to open, the taste of paper cartons was described as unpleasant, and middle school children reported the cartons to be too small in size.
- Texture: Chocolate milk is perceived as being thicker while white milk is considered “watered down.” More than 50 percent of the children preferred chocolate milk.
- Age group-specific marketing: 60 percent of elementary school children said that posters influence their milk purchases while middle schoolers said that advertisements are too childish.
- Temperature at serving: Students indicated that warm or room-temperature milk is unpalatable and discourages consumption.
Valuable research such as this provides actionable tactics that can not only improve student milk consumption, but also improve their nutrient intake. Results from this study are not yet published but keep an eye out for this exciting data and in the meantime encourage the children in your life to share what influences their food choices to learn how we can help them consume a balanced diet to support overall health.