With World School Milk Day taking place on the 27th September, registered dietitian Juliette Kellow looks at the lessons we can learn from putting milk on the menu for children.
World School Milk Day is a global celebration of school milk programmes – and an annual reminder of the nutritional benefits of milk in children’s diets.
The importance of milk in schools was first recognised in the UK with the implementation of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act in 1906. A glass of milk was typically included as part of the school food provided to children.
Fast forward more than a hundred years and today’s Government also understands the important role nutrient-rich milk plays in the diets of pre-school and school children. In England, Scotland, and Wales, the Nursery Milk Scheme provides 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk each day, free of charge, to all children under the age of five years attending approved day care facilities. For primary and secondary school children, the School Milk Subsidy Scheme subsidises the cost of up to 250ml of whole or semi-skimmed milk so that schools can provide milk at a lower price. Some other milk products and yogurts are also part of the scheme.
So just what is in plain milk – but also not in plain milk – that makes it such an important part of pre-school and school children’s diets?
Not so sweet nutrition
Let’s start with what plain milk is missing! And that’s sugar, more specifically ‘free sugars’, the type added to foods and many soft drinks, but also those occurring naturally in fruit juices. Health guidelines recommend everyone reduces their intake of free sugars – and children are no exception. Yet despite sugar being constantly in the news, only one in 50 children aged 4-10 years meet the guideline to have less than 5% of calories from free sugars. Average intakes amount to a massive 47g a day, around 12 teaspoons! It’s more than double the amount recommended – health guidelines advise no more than five teaspoons for children aged 4-6, and six teaspoons for 7-10 year olds!
Reducing sugar is important as high intakes are linked to an increased risk of tooth decay and higher calorie intakes. In particular, sugary drinks have been shown to cause greater weight gain in children and teenagers.
It’s great news then that free sugars are completely absent in plain milk. Yes, milk contains a natural sugar called lactose, but health organisations around the world, including the NHS, say there’s no need to avoid or limit this type of sugar as it’s not harmful to health. Indeed, according to Feeding young children aged 1 to 5 years – a new Government report published this July – milk or water should make up most of the drinks given to children up to the age of five years and sugar-sweetened drinks should be avoided. Whole and semi-skimmed milk can be given as a main drink from the age of one. Skimmed and 1% fat milks can be used in cooking, but shouldn’t be given as a main drink as they are lower in vitamin A. Which neatly leads onto the nutrients in milk.
The goodness of milk
Including milk in a child’s diet can make a significant contribution to bone friendly nutrients. This is particularly important as nutrient needs for young children are high in comparison to their size to support growth. For example, compared with UK guidelines for 4–6-year-olds, a 189ml carton of milk (the amount provided by the Nursery Milk Scheme) provides the following nutrition…
The importance of many of these nutrients during childhood can’t be overlooked. For example, protein is vital for muscles to grow, and together with calcium and phosphorus is needed for the normal growth and development of bone in children.
Making sure children get enough calcium is especially important. During childhood, and particularly the teenage years, large amounts of this mineral are deposited in bone – and this largely determines the strength of bones in later life. The more calcium deposited in the bone bank during these important developmental years, the stronger bones will be in our 40s and beyond.
Meanwhile, calcium and phosphorus are also essential for teeth and, when provided in the form of dairy, seem to be particularly beneficial. Indeed, a recent scientific paper highlighted dental health may be negatively affected if plant-based dairy alternatives are consumed in place of traditional dairy, indicating the unique combination of naturally occurring nutrients in milk – and the way they interact – that’s so important for teeth.
Encouraging children to consume milk is particularly important for helping to top up iodine intakes, too. This nutrient is vital for growth in children and contributes to normal cognitive function, the mental activities that affect attention, memory, and language, plus the ability to think, make decisions and solve problems. However, many children fail to get enough. Figures from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey – a large ongoing survey that monitors nutrient intakes of the UK population – reveals 7% of 4-10 year olds and 24% of 11-18 year olds have very low intakes so are at risk of deficiency.
Meanwhile, though much of the focus on school milk is targeted at nursery and primary school aged children, milk has an equally important part to play in the diets of children at secondary school. It’s teenagers, and particularly girls, who are most likely to have very low intakes of nutrients. A 200ml serving of semi-skimmed milk is a source of potassium and phosphorus and is rich in calcium and iodine, so can make a significant contribution to these nutrients, which are often lacking in teenager’s diets:
It’s clear milk has a vital role to play in the diets of schoolchildren, something that has been recognised for more than a century in the UK. On World School Milk Day, it’s a chance to reflect on the nutritional benefits of school milk and celebrate the positive impact it can have on the growth and development of children.