Schools are stockpiling a chocolate milk that claims to stem damage from concussion

Nothing a little chocolate milk can’t fix.
Nothing a little chocolate milk can’t fix.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Strasen
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Chocolate milk is delicious, refreshing, and a great way to get calcium and sugar in one big gulp. But can it protect from concussions? Some US schools are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a Maryland-based company’s chocolate milk that it suggests can do just that.

In December, the University of Maryland put out a press release announcing, “Concussion-Related Measures Improved in High School Football Players Who Drank New Chocolate Milk, UMD Study Shows.” The study, conducted by kinesiology professor Jae Kun Shim, and funded by the school’s Maryland Industrial Partnerships program, followed 474 high school football players through 2014’s fall season, giving half of them chocolate milk from the brand Fifth Quarter Fresh after every practice and game.  The release does not state what the control group drank instead.

Researchers say that ”concussed athletes drinking the milk improved cognitive and motor scores in four measures after the season as compared to those who did not,” and “both non-concussed and concussed [players] showed positive effects from the chocolate milk.” They also note that more in-depth studies are necessary to be conclusive, but that doesn’t seem to have discouraged customers.

“There is nothing more important than protecting our student-athletes,” Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, is quoted as saying in the same release: ”Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh to all of our athletes.” He’s planning on spending $25,000 on the stuff next year, according to STAT, a health and medicine news source.

Image for article titled Schools are stockpiling a chocolate milk that claims to stem damage from concussion
Image: Fifth Quarter Fresh

The company website is filled with images of athletes in high impact sports, and artfully worded claims. In one, the words “Protect the Brain. May lower the effect of some concussion-related symptoms. Naturally,” are superimposed over the face of a child football player.

But as STAT observes, the concussion-recovery study is unpublished, making its claims hard to verify. Publication usually entails a rigorous peer review process by other experts in the field. Neither STAT nor Quartz was able to obtain a copy of the full study or speak to its lead author. A representative from Shim’s department told Quartz that he was out of the country and offered an opportunity to speak with another staff member, who did not respond to Quartz’s email.

Watchdog site Health News Review has called the December press release “out-of-bounds,” citing issues like its failure to quantify or precisely identify which cognitive functions improved.

Richard Doak, co-founder of Fifth Quarter Fresh, told STAT, “We are regular milk. Just more concentrated.” He said they they are ”very cautious about the fact that we don’t want to mislead anybody.”

“Although the study is preliminary, all the data has been analyzed,” Doak told Quartz. “We thought these results were promising enough to share on a preliminary basis.”

The label on the bottle has a graphic showing football players, and describes its contents as “natural muscle refuel,” boasting its calcium, protein and “BCAAs” (aka branch-chain amino acids, a favored supplement of bodybuilders). The nutrition facts list 42 grams of sugar, giving Fifth Quarter Fresh a major lead over Snickers bars, which only contain 27 grams of sugar.

The company credits its cows and pasteurization process for the milk’s high protein and electrolyte counts.

“Milk is a great recovery beverage after a workout to help minimize muscle breakdown and aid in recovery,” acknowledges Franca Alphin, director of nutrition services at student health and adjunct faculty member in the department of recreation and physical activity at Duke University, in a statement to Quartz regarding Fifth Quarter Fresh. But she is skeptical about its ability to protect the brain. “For anything regarding concussions, I just think it’s much too early to say anything about about one nutrient.”

“The public should not jump to conclusions on any product claims until a study has undergone proper independent scientific peer review,” neuropsychologist Rosemarie Scolaro Moser told STAT. Moser works at the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey and advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on concussions in young people.

Claims to protect against concussions could expose the small company to liability, as artfully worded as they are. “Most states’ consumer protection statutes don’t require an actual misrepresentation,” says Ted Craig, a class action defense attorney at Florida law firm Gray Robinson to Quartz. All plaintiffs would likely need, he says, is “just proof that it’s deceptive.”

Customers aren’t complaining, though.

Before the study came out about Fifth Quarter Fresh’s apparent cognitive benefits, Bucknell University had already signed a three-year contract with the company, upping its weekly orders from 300 units per week to 20,000, according to a Fifth Quarter Fresh press release in October. An additional seven high schools are listed as providing the milk to student athletes.

A Bucknell University representative told Quartz that the milk is used “primarily as a post-workout or post-game replenishment and recovery drink.” And Wilcox told STAT he’s happy just to see kids drink milk. Plus, he says, the brand has “really stumbled across that secret sauce.” (He did not respond to Quartz’s inquiry.)

But that secret sauce is likely marketing, not dairy. Milk sales have been falling for decades. The market for sports drinks, however, continues to show growth.