SOLOMON: The Downside of Those Wholesome Ads for Milk
Every day, flashy ad campaigns push a lot of unhealthy food products. So, we may be glad to see that glamorous stars with white mustaches are appearing in advertisements that ask a very wholesome question:"Got milk?"But the ongoing media blitz for milk does not ask a more important question:"Got clogged arteries?"The image of milk as the ultimate health food has been promoted in the media for a long time. Four decades ago, Walt Disney's TV program routinely urged baby boomers to drink "one, two, three" glasses of milk every day. As I recall, Tinkerbell used a magic wand for emphasis.This month, a full-page "Got milk?" advertisement features the cast of the TV show "Frasier," all with frothy white mustaches. "The general populace isn't merely lacking culture, it's lacking calcium," the ad warns. But some consumers are wise: "The enlightened among us, however, drink three glasses of milk a day."To most Americans, milk does not mean skim or 1 percent milk. And health risks accumulate along with residues of fat."Milk is a good source of calcium and Vitamin D for building children's bones," says Margo Wootan, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But in whole and 2 percent milk, those nutrients come at too high a price."Saturated fat "is a major contributor to heart disease -- the leading killer of both men and women," Wootan notes. The ominous signs start with kids who are still in grade school. "Fatty streaks -- an early stage of heart disease -- are seen in the arteries of children as young as 10 years old."Just how much of a problem is fatty milk in the diets of young people? A new study, published by the medical journal Pediatrics, found that milk is the foremost source of saturated fat congealing in the arteries of America's kids.Let's be clear here. Infants and very young children need to consume fat for proper brain development. But after age 2, whole milk does more harm than good. And so does the advertising that touts milk as a healthy drink, never mind the details."Switching from whole or 2 percent milk to 1 percent or fat- free milk is one of the most important, single nutritional changes that children can make," contends the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group points out that "one cup of whole milk has as much artery-clogging fat as five strips of bacon." And 2 percent milk "is not much better. It's like three strips."A few of the ads with white-mustached celebrities have included nice comments about low-fat or skim milk. But the hazards of drinking fattier milk go unmentioned. "We advocate all different kinds of milk," said Kurt Graetzer, executive director of the Milk Processor Education Program. He told me that "we do not have a proactive campaign" to encourage a shift of milk consumption away from fat.But now, a nationwide effort is underway to tackle a serious problem that the milk industry has dodged. The new focus is on schools, where nutritionists see great potential for health gains by promoting 1 percent or fat-free milk.Right now, 85 percent of the nation's schools offer 2 percent white milk -- but only 29 percent offer 1 percent white milk. Two-thirds of the school kids who drink milk at lunch have whole or 2 percent milk. Yet they would be getting the same amount of calcium and Vitamin D from 1 percent or fat-free milk.A big hurdle may be the watery appearance of milk with little or no fat. As a kid, I refused to drink skim milk -- but maybe I should have closed my eyes. "In blind taste tests of more than 1,900 children and adults," the Center for Science in the Public Interest reports, "95 percent liked the taste of either 1 percent or fat-free milk when they could not see it."The center is in the midst of a "1 Percent Or Less" drive -- endorsed by 55 national organizations and state health departments -- to bring down the fat levels in milk at school. (To order a "1 Percent Or Less School Kit," call 202-332-9110, ext. 352.)The milk industry is proud of the "Got milk?" theme. But we'll know that public health has triumphed over hype when a revised motto appears in those slick ads:"Got skim milk?"Norman Solomon is co-author of "Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News" and author of "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."