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Culinary Curiosities: Chocolate Milk



The school I work at has a self-serve milk machine. There are two spouts: one for white milk and one for chocolate. During the average lunch period, the five-gallon bag of chocolate milk is replaced at least once. The white milk? Not as much. A few weeks after the machine was installed we had to reposition it to better monitor the totally understandable temptation youngsters have to chug as much chocolate milk as possible while standing in front of the machine before surreptitiously refilling the glass. Hey kid, refills are 50 cents!

Chocolate milk, favored by kids and eyed with suspicion by some parents, is—like it or not—a school lunch staple. Who invented it? Where did it come from? You might be surprised to learn that it may have its roots in Jamaica, and it was an Irish botanist and physician who brought it back to England and popularized the beverage.

Sir Hans Sloane, born in Ireland in 1660, was a talented doctor and a passionate scholar of the natural world. In 1687 he was appointed the personal physician of the Duke of Albemarle, the new governor of the British colony of Jamaica. During his time in Jamaica, Sloane made detailed studies of local flora and fauna, including cacao. He made special note of a spiced cacao drink the Jamaicans made. Too bitter for Sloane’s taste, he tried boiling the cacao with sugared milk to improve the flavor. Within two years the governor died and Sloane returned to England, bringing with him a massive collection of plant specimens, including a significant amount of cacao and his recipe for the sweetened chocolate milk.  

Sloane licensed apothecaries to sell the beverage as medicinal. At this time in Europe there was a healthy demand and interest in chocolate both as a medicine and as a luxury good. Upon his return he set up a thriving medical practice with the aid and patronage of the governor’s widow, whom he continued to serve. He also became the physician for Queen Anne, King George I and George II. The chocolate milk he prescribed was popular among his wealthy and privileged patients and surely increased his fame as well as the contents of his pocket book.

But was he really the first to “invent” chocolate milk? Well, let us just say he had the reputation, connections and timing to make it profitable and well-known. Since the mid-1600s there were popular “chocolate houses” in England, very much like coffeehouses, that sold spiced chocolate drinks, some likely mixed with milk. And in 1662, Henry Stubbe, also a physician who had been to Jamaica, wrote a book about cacao and its uses called, “The Indian Nectar, Or, A Discourse Concerning Chocolate.” Sloane was almost certainly familiar with Stubbe’s work, which mentions chocolate mixed with milk. Chocolate beverages, combined with a variety of ingredients such as wine, eggs, spices and sweeteners, had been around since conquistador Herman Cortez brought cacao back to King Charles V of Spain from the Aztecs. It’s doubtful that Sloane was the first to make sweet chocolate milk, but he certainly made it popular.

Today chocolate milk is still beloved, despite a general decline in American milk consumption of nearly 40 percent since 1975. School lunches have always had a place for milk—and strong investment from the dairy industry—but have also experienced pushback on serving chocolate milk because of its higher sugar content and calories. There is also support for chocolate milk, with some arguing that it still has nutrient value and kids are more likely to drink it than plain white milk. A 2010 study funded by the Milk Processor Education Program showed that 70 percent of kids buy flavored or chocolate milk and that when only plain is offered, milk drinking dropped an average of 35 percent.

I can vouch for the fact that kids like chocolate milk. A lot. Parents, nutrition workers, dairy industry lobbyists and government agencies can debate the relative value of chocolate milk for years to come, but I know come this September, I’ll be keeping an eye on that milk machine, especially the chocolate. It doesn’t refill itself! 

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