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No, Chocolate Milk Doesn’t Help with Concussions After all

Words by Leon Kaye

If you love science, and celebrate its resurgence with Facebook pages like this one and the number of initiatives to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, much of the nonsense out there about health and fitness can be frustrating.

Avoiding gluten even if one does not have celiac disease, insisting on shopping only at Whole Foods, and of course the on-again, thankfully now off-again, anti-vaccine movement are just a few examples of how some life choices are made by cherry-picking beliefs and without any guidance from science. Nevertheless, bringing up scientific research while asking why someone indulges in oil pulling or insists all soy is evil often prompts this reaction: “Well, so much research is funded by corporations, so why should I believe it?”

Case in point: a research fiasco at the University of Maryland College Park, which finally ended last week when the university’s administration returned over $228,000 in funds. The cash contributed to a study that claimed a brand of chocolate milk alleviated the health effects of concussions.

The snickering began last fall when Jae Kun Shim, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, authored a study that compared the cognitive and motor functions of high-school football players over the course of a season. The subjects were regularly given servings of chocolate milk made by Fifth Quarter Brands, which apparently sources its milk from “super, natural” cows that crank out milk with 40 percent more calcium, as well as far more electrolytes and calcium than regular milk. In a marketing campaign that would most likely earn a failing grade in any undergraduate business school course, Fifth Quarter Brands insists that the milk from these “best cows” has the “highest quality standards” and is then pasteurized “without exposing the milk to ultra-high temperatures.”

And “just as nature intended,” this milk -- which study participants often consumed as often as six times a week -- helped both concussed and non-concussed football players score better on an array of cognitive scores than the control group, which was not exposed to the Fifth Quarter drink, the study concluded.

The reason: “Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are important for energy metabolism and neurotransmitter synthesis in the brain,” Professor Shim said in a university press release.

It sounds impressive, but shortly after the press release about the study was issued last December, many commentators did not smell chocolate or a super-charged cow, but smelled a rat instead.

Considering the ongoing controversy over the long-term health effects of concussions on all football players, from high-school to college to the NFL, many observers were appalled that the university could hype such a study covering such a sensitive subject. Meanwhile, schools were stocking up on the coveted chocolate milk, creating a rapid cash cow (ahem) for Fifth Quarter Brands. During this saga, one basic fact triggered many an eye-roll: One serving of this milk product contains more sugar than a 12-ounce can of cola.

Then, the news became even worse: As health writer Andrew Holtz found out when communicating with the university’s press office, there was not a published study to be found in any academic journal. So why on earth, many kept asking, was one of the nation’s largest public universities behaving like a public-relations lackey for the dairy industry, or in the case of Fifth Quarter Brands, some obscure marketing company? No other brand of chocolate milk was mentioned, and the university kept stonewalling when Holtz and other writers asked for additional information. It turned out that approximately $200,000 of the study's funding came from trade organizations representing the dairy industry, including the Allied Milk Foundation; the other $29,000 was from Fifth Quarter Brands.

Fittingly, on April Fool’s Day, the University of Maryland disavowed the study, removed any evidence of the research from its website, and said it would return all funds earmarked for the project. An internal study declared that Professor Shim’s “failure to declare gifts from the Allied Milk Foundation as a conflict of interest violates university regulations.”

The outcome? More training for professors so that they understand what “Responsible Conduct of Research” means, and another embarrassment for higher education, already troubled by skyrocketing tuition prices, bloated administrative costs and constant athletic department scandals.

Image credit: Fifth Quarter Brands

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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