It's probably thought of as a childhood drink, but chocolate milk might actually be able to help you recover after a workout.
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Most of my clients think of chocolate milk as a kid's drink. But even adults may occasionally crave it as a comfort food. As you go to take a swig of the childhood favorite, you might wonder if chocolate milk can offer more than just nostalgia—perhaps some health benefits, too? Well, it's tricky. Here's the lowdown on the drink's nutrients, as well what research says about how chocolate milk may impact your health.         

Is Chocolate Milk Good For You?
Credit: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

Chocolate milk nutrition

Just like unsweetened, unflavored milk, chocolate milk is available in the forms of whole (3.5% fat by weight), 2%, 1%, and skim. Single-serve chugs of chocolate milk are often sold in the form of 1%. One 8-ounce container of Organic Valley's 1% chocolate milk supplies 150 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 23 grams of carbohydrate with about 10 grams as added sugar, and 8 grams of protein. The portion also contains 20% of the daily value for calcium, 30% for the B vitamin riboflavin, 10% for potassium, and 15% for vitamins A and D. In short, while chocolate milk does provide some key nutrients, it also delivers a third of the recommended maximum daily intake of added sugar for women, based on guidelines from the American Heart Association. According to the USDA database, each 8-ounce cup of low-fat (aka, 1%) chocolate milk also provides 7.4 ounces of water, which contributes to hydration.

What if you use chocolate syrup to make your own chocolate milk: Is that any better or worse than drinking ready-made chocolate milk? It depends how little or much syrup you squeeze in, but probably not. That's because one tablespoon of chocolate syrup (probably what most people would add to 8 ounces of milk) contains 10 grams of added sugar, same as what's in 8 ounces of the pre-sweetened chocolate milk.

Chocolate milk and health outcomes

Really, when it comes to studies on chocolate milk and health outcomes in adults, research is lacking. So what we have to look at is research on the main ingredient of milk itself—not chocolate milk—and those findings are mixed.

A 2018 study from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found no evidence for a protective effect between a sustained intake of dairy-derived calcium and fracture risk. An older study from the same journal found that a higher intake of milk among adults was not tied to a lower fracture risk, and may be linked to a higher death rate.

In contrast, a 2019 analysis of eight previous studies published in the journal Advances in Nutrition concluded that dairy product consumption was not associated with risk of all-cause mortality (note: the research was sponsored by the Interprofessional Dairy Organization of Spain). And a 2021 analysis in Nutrition & Metabolism that reviewed 41 studies found that while milk consumption was related to both health benefits and risks, the data skewed more positive than negative.

But here's something key to keep in mind: The results of these studies largely reflect the effects of routine (and often, high) milk consumption. Many people drink chocolate milk just here and there. In other words, having a glass of chocolate milk once a week isn't going to have the same effect on bone health and mortality as having one to three glasses of milk a day.

Chocolate milk and recovery

A lot of people think of chocolate milk as a sweet treat, but it has also long been touted as a recovery drink. As a board-certified sports dietitian, I'm often asked about the benefits of drinking chocolate milk after a workout. Older research from the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism is frequently cited regarding the topic. In that study, on three separate days, researchers asked nine male endurance-trained cyclists to perform interval workouts, take a four-hour rest, and then resume cycling to exhaustion. After the first training session, and again two hours later, the cyclists consumed one of three drinks: chocolate milk; a lower carbohydrate fluid replacement with electrolytes; or a higher carb drink with the same amount of carbs as the chocolate milk. Athletes who drank chocolate milk took longer to reach exhaustion, leading researchers to conclude that the beverage is an effective recovery aid between two fatiguing bouts of exercise.

A more recent study looked at chocolate milk vs water as recovery aids following all-out bouts of high-intensity endurance climbing. Ten men scaled a climbing wall to exhaustion. Twenty minutes later, the participants consumed either water or chocolate milk and then downed their respective drink again with their evening meals. The athletes also repeated the protocol using the opposite drink. When they consumed chocolate milk, the men improved their performance in terms of distance climbed and duration of the workout. Muscle soreness scores were also lower three days after exercise for the chocolate milk drinkers.

While this research is interesting, my issue is that they are comparing drinks that are very dissimilar in composition, including drinks that aren't recommended ways to achieve recovery. The goal of a post-workout snack or beverage is to replenish fluid and nutrients that have been lost during training and provide the building blocks needed to heal from the wear and tear exercise puts on the body. Sports dietitians have long recommended that athletes and active people consume fluid, electrolytes, and other nutrients after a strenuous workout, in addition to both carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio. In other words, water, a sports drink, or a carb-only beverage alone—the drinks compared to chocolate milk in these studies—aren't standard nutrition protocol after a difficult workout.

For a 2017 review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at 12 previous studies that compared chocolate milk to either water or sports drinks to assess post-exercise recovery markers. The scientists concluded that chocolate milk seems to be a good candidate to aid recovery because it contains nutrients needed for replenishment and healing. But again, the research compared chocolate milk to other drinks that also aren't the recommended way, alone, to recover after strenuous exercise.

Basically, what chocolate milk has going for it is that its composition is naturally in line with the fluid, macro and micronutrients needed to support exercise recovery. Cow's milk is also a good source of leucine, an amino acid needed to trigger muscle protein synthesis. And chocolate milk is relatively available and affordable. That said, it's not the only choice—and it's also not an option at all for certain people, including those with a milk allergy or sensitivity, people with lactose intolerance, and vegans.

If dairy-based chocolate milk isn't a good option for you for whatever reason, or you simply choose not to drink it, there are plenty of other alternatives. One is chocolate plant milk made from split peas. Like dairy-based chocolate milk, chocolate pea milk provides 8 grams of protein per cup and is also a good source of leucine. An 8-ounce portion of Ripple's brand also contains 4.5 grams of fat, 17 grams of carbohydrate with 15 grams as added sugar, 35% of the daily value for calcium, 100% for vitamin B12, 10% for potassium, 10% for vitamin A, and 30% for vitamin D. Pair pea milk with a small banana to up the carb-to-protein ratio to the advised 4:1.

Bottom line

There's a lack of research about infrequent chocolate milk consumption and health outcomes.

If you reach for chocolate milk occasionally as a treat, it may provide more nutrients than another sweet option it displaces, such as ice cream or a brownie. And after a hard workout, chocolate milk can provide the fluid and nutrients needed to support recovery. However, it's not an option for everyone, including those with lactose intolerance or milk allergies. It's also not the only source of recovery nutrients.

And then there's this: Any food you consume once in a blue moon is less likely to impact your nutritional status and health compared to your usual eating pattern. If chocolate milk is a can't-live-without favorite, enjoy it once in a while. And if you can't or don't want to consume dairy, look for plant-based alternatives that offer a similar creamy composition and satisfy a sweet, chocolatey craving.    

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