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Have you heard of an eating disorder called orthorexia? Translated literally, it means “correct appetite” or “correct eating,” and it’s when people obsess over the “right” foods to the point that it controls their lives and wrecks their health. Orthorexia isn’t new, nor is it recognized as an official disorder. But it’s gotten a lot of press in recent years, including lately, with this widely circulated article.

Why the buzz? Author Michael Pollan has suggested that orthorexia is the fallout of nutritionism, a food-industry construct that emphasizes nutrients (often fortified) over actual whole foods. So it’s possible that we’re seeing more food fixation from a greater number of people already on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

But I have another theory about why orthorexia stories go viral. It’s because a lot of people think conscious eaters are obsessive-compulsive in their own right, and orthorexia gives wiseguys a reason to call us freaks. It happens every time orthorexia makes the news (like this Spoonfed comment). And usually I sigh and ignore it because, really, why talk sense with folks more interested in talking trash?

Except the latest orthorexia wave hit amid the Great Chocolate Milk Debate. And that got me thinking. How nuts are we as a country that healthful food is gleefully ridiculed while government-subsidized dreck is defended as a symbol of ideal nutrition and food freedom? What on earth is wrong with us?

Battle of the bottles

As everyone must know by now, banning chocolate milk has become the cause célèbre of school food. Even before Jamie Oliver filled a schoolbus with sand-cum-sugar to make his point in Los Angeles, school-food activists were on the case. Most notably chef Ann Cooper (who calls flavored milk “soda in drag”) and journalist Ed Bruske, who has meticulously documented the biased research and questionable endorsements behind the dairy industry’s campaign to keep flavored milk in schools (where it accounts for 66% of all milk sold).

The anti-ban voices have protested right along, but Oliver’s crusade raised the stakes. Some examples: Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Lunch Tray, Raise Healthy Eaters, EducationNews and Time.

The arguments range from tiresome (nanny state) to insulting (kids will eat healthy food only if it’s sweet or disguised) to thoughtful (concerns over calcium intake and federal lunch reimbursements). But they all miss the point: Flavored milk in schools isn’t good for kids, no matter how it’s justified. It’s questionably nutritious, sugared-up, adulterated with thickeners and fake colors and flavors, and processed to within an inch of palatability. It’s the symbol of a system that feeds kids calories and chemicals sold as nourishment. And it’s the product of a spin machine that has too many people believing that milk is a magical calcium elixir and, thus, that any milk is better than no milk.

Sugar haze

Before I say more, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about chocolate milk made with real milk, real chocolate, at home, as a treat, hot or cold, whatever. Or even the occasional packaged chocolate milk provided by parents. That’s not what this debate is about. So enough with the nanny-state nonsense. But if people want to talk about the food police, let’s talk about how schools, via government commodities and corporate kickbacks, already dictate the chocolate milk and everything else we feed kids. Every. Single. Day. That’s something the nanny-state complainers conveniently forget when they blather about free choice.

So. Moving along.

Those who support flavored milk are quick to note that while, yes, it has cane or beet sugar or high-fructose corn syrup on top of naturally occurring lactose, it also has protein, calcium, other minerals and vitamins (some added, some inherent). Which sets it apart from soda, sports drinks and juice. And they’re right. Theoretically.

But there’s good reason to question whether the hyper-processed, low-fat milk served in schools even makes those nutrients available. High-heat pasteurization denatures enzymes that help the body absorb calcium. And vitamins A and D (both added) aren’t absorbed without sufficient fat. Then there’s the fact that added sugar isn’t just empty calories — it’s an anti-nutrient that depletes vital minerals. And science keeps reaffirming that we’re fat and sick precisely because of refined sugar and refined grains, not because of the saturated fat that has long been blamed. So even reducing the sugar, as some advocate, isn’t enough. This isn’t just about calories and obesity. (And it’s most definitely not about “moderation.”) It’s about health.

Got dessert?

But, OK, even if every last nutrient is absorbed, even if added sugar isn’t toxic and doesn’t contribute to serious childhood health issues, must we patronize kids by turning everything into dessert? And, in the process, undermine their taste for non-sweet foods? Are we such victims of nutritionism that the word “calcium” on the label is all that matters?

Let’s look, too, at the reason many kids won’t drink plain school milk in the first place: It tastes bad. Milk processors and schools acknowledge this, blaming the
off-flavors on processing, packaging and storage. Um. OK. But instead of masking the flavor of inferior milk, why not do something about it? We might never return to the more nutritious whole milk that was served before saturated fat became the devil. But we can move toward milk free from artificial hormones and pesticides, milk sourced and processed in more responsible, palatable ways. Think that’s unrealistic? Check out this Food & Water Watch school milk campaign for tips on getting better milk in your own school. We never know until we try.

Propaganda 101

Dairy processors play the consumption card when lobbying for chocolate milk, which is why we’ve all seen the statistic that school kids drink 37% less milk when flavored milks are eliminated. Given the taste complaints and how long it takes to break bad habits, I’m inclined to believe it. But it’s also worth considering why the dairy industry — which funded that study — might want us to believe consumption drops even if it doesn’t.

Aside from the fact that chocolate milk in some cases costs more, milk processors also benefit when more kids choose milk as one of three (out of five) mandated components of school lunch. (Milk must be offered, though not necessarily taken, for the lunch to qualify for federal reimbursement.) So processors don’t want just the same number of kids choosing milk for lunch — they want more kids choosing milk for lunch. And they want to sell more milk a la carte, too. And since kids are more likely to choose sweetened milk (especially over unappetizing options like limp veggies), there’s a clear incentive to show that milk consumption drops when chocolate milk isn’t offered. Because that’s exactly the scare tactic dairy processors need to keep peddling the flavored stuff.

Bottom line: Schools sell only 2.3% of all the plain milk sold in the United States. But they sell 53.5% of all the flavored milk.

And if milk consumption does drop? That’s OK. Vegans and lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic folks (and plenty of other countries and cultures) do fine without milk. And so can the rest of us. If we choose. And it is a choice, despite the drink-milk-or-else propaganda from dairy-funded groups like the American Dietetic Association and School Nutrition Association. (For lists of other calcium sources: Dr. Sears and National Institutes of Health.)

Sweet talkers

So let’s leave the panicking to the dairy processors and direct our energy to something that really matters: making free water mandatory in schools. (I know. Hard to believe it’s taken this long for the government to get behind that.) The dairy industry’s own research shows that 64% of parents would rather their kids choose plain milk or water over anything else. Only 15% said they’d rather their kids choose flavored milk. Remind me again, why is this an issue?

Choice and control

Flavored-milk proponents like to say that sweetened milk is the least of our school food problems. Yes, sure, cafeterias serve lots of nasty things. But why is that an argument for flavored milk? If chocolate milk were the only worry on a tray of clean, wholesome food, then the pro camp might have a case. But that’s the problem: It’s flavored milk on top of syrupy canned fruit on top of additive-loaded muffins on top of fried everything.

I also don’t buy the argument that keeping flavored milk preserves “choice.” Raising food-literate children is not about offering every possible option no matter what. It’s about educating kids on ingredients and how foods are produced. And it’s about being exposed to real food on a regular basis and developing a taste for it. But kids can’t do that if they’re constantly bombarded with inferior options. I’m all about empowering and respecting kids’ ability to make smart food choices. But let’s not forget that they are kids. We have a responsibility to offer good choices in the first place, and to teach children that not all foods deserve equal billing.

Which, finally, brings us back to orthorexia. Orthorexia isn’t about food. It’s about control, fear and the inability to make rational choices. And right now the flavored-milk debate is driven by an industry that wants to maintain control by making us too scared to make good choices for our kids. Even Steven Bratman, the Colorado doctor who coined the term “orthorexia” in 1996, says “the problem of addiction to junk food is immensely more serious than excessive obsession with healthy food.” So you tell me: What’s our national eating disorder? Who’s not in control now?


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