It’s been kicked out of some school cafeterias, vilified as a junk-food beverage that’s contributing to childhood obesity. But chocolate milk is making a comeback with an unlikely new image: the perfect drink for Ironman and Olympic athletes after a grueling workout.
“It’s not the most intuitive thing to try chocolate milk,” admits Miranda Abney, marketing director at the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, the same group responsible for the “Got Milk?” campaign from the 1990s.
But as overall milk sales have dropped in recent years, the dairy industry has been positioning chocolate milk as a contender in the fast-growing market for protein bars and shakes. Their target is adults, who have traditionally dismissed milk — especially chocolate milk — as a kid’s drink.
That might seem crazy to people used to thinking of chocolate milk as the candy of beverages. And nutritionists caution that it isn’t for everyone: If you’re just walking around the block, water should do.
But for elite athletes pushing their bodies especially hard, experts say, chocolate milk does provide a mix of carbohydrates and protein to help muscles recover.
“Love chocolate milk,” Brian Danza, president of the Washington running group DC Road Runners, wrote in an email when asked where he stood on the chocolate-milk fad.
The industry is counting on chocolate milk for growth because some unexpected factors have been driving down broader milk sales. There’s rising competition from other beverages, such as protein shakes and soy and almond milks. And there’s been a decade-long decline in the popularity of breakfast cereal; the industry estimates that nearly one-fifth of all milk is used on cereal.
In addition, the recession caused a drop in birthrates, leaving fewer children in their prime years for milk consumption.
Since 2012, MilkPEP has poured $15 million a year into its new chocolate-milk campaign, enlisting the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey and women’s ski-jump teams to help promote the drink. One ad shows a sweaty Olympic hockey star, Zach Parise, downing a bottle of milk while sitting in a locker room. And chocolate milk is now served at the end of Ironman races and marathons across the country.
In terms of sales, the results have been promising, industry executives say: In the first half of last year, the number of adults who said they drank chocolate milk in the past day ticked up from 10 percent to 12 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds, and from 6 percent to 8 percent among those 25 to 49.
The roots of the trend stretch back to 2006, after studies emerged showing that serious athletes could reduce muscle pain and stiffness by consuming a certain ratio of carbohydrates and protein within 60 minutes of working out. Nutritionists say the ideal ratio is roughly two to four parts carbohydrates to one part protein.
Then an article appeared in the Journal for Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism called “Chocolate Milk as a Post-Recovery Aid.” The study, supported in part by the Dairy and Nutrition Council, tested nine male endurance cyclists. Immediately after a high-energy interval workout, the cyclists drank chocolate milk. There followed a four-hour recovery, and then a more intense workout.
The researchers found that, by some measures, the cyclists who drank chocolate milk outperformed those who had specifically formulated carbohydrate replacement drinks.
Over the years, word spread among running groups, as well as high school and college teams. Soon, running and fitness magazines picked up on the trend, publishing articles with headlines like “Runner Superfoods: Chocolate Milk To The Rescue.”
Organizers for the Big Sur Marathon in California said they added chocolate milk at the finish line last year after hearing strong demand from runners in post-race surveys.
“That was one desire that came out loud and clear, that people really wanted chocolate milk,” said Julie Armstrong, marketing communications director for the race. “They specifically said: chocolate milk.”
Armstrong remembers being in a running group about a year ago, and the coach encouraged everyone to drink chocolate milk after long runs. “The coach would bring out a big half-gallon jug of chocolate milk for us,” Armstrong said. “We’d get back to his car, and he’d say, ‘Look what I have!’”
Nutritionists say chocolate milk is no magic elixir and that any snack or drink with a similar ratio of carbohydrates to protein would be just as effective. And they warn consumers to read nutrition labels: Yoo-hoo, for instance, is a chocolate “drink” made primarily of water and high fructose corn syrup.
There’s also the matter of calories and quantity to consider. Nutritionists advise people to choose skim or low-fat versions — and to watch the amount they drink.
“You know how people can get,” said Shavise Glascoe, exercise specialist at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. “They’ll see something and they’ll go and buy a gallon of chocolate milk and drink the [whole] gallon after working out.”
For athletes who prefer something other than chocolate milk, Armstrong said the Big Sur race includes a number of other options for participants exhausted from running 26.2 miles through one of the windiest and hilliest courses in the country.
“There’s juice, water, and there’s beer,” Armstrong said. “You’ve got to have beer.”