Chocolate milk: It does a (Laker's) body good

Elias Stein

The final buzzer sounds, the Los Angeles Lakers stride into the locker room and the hunt for chocolate milk begins.

It's the first item many Lakers players reach for after games, and it can often be found in or in front of their lockers -- up to 16 ounces of creamy cocoa goodness in a clear plastic container. Each jug bears players' initials so that no one grabs someone else's. At least, that's the plan.

"Guys get furious if their chocolate milk is taken," Lakers rookie forward Larry Nance Jr. recently said with a straight face. "Nick [Young] and Roy [Hibbert], if they don't get their chocolate milk, they throw a hissy fit."

The postgame treat isn't your average store-bought milk. It's a low-sugar concoction with organic cocoa and whole milk from grass-fed cows specially made by a Whole Foods based in whichever NBA city the team is in.

Though the beverage is more associated with grade-school cafeterias than professional-sports locker rooms, the Lakers consider it a cornerstone for player recovery after games.

"Players are initially like, 'Huh? I love chocolate milk and if you say it's good for me, great. I'm down for this,'" said Tim DiFrancesco, the Lakers' strength and conditioning coach. "I think the players are initially puzzled by it because maybe they haven't seen that a lot, but I think a lot of people in my industry are aware of the evidence that supports this."

About a dozen Lakers drink it after games, including several first-year members.

"I've always been told chocolate milk is fatty, but coming here, I've been drinking it and I've been feeling great," said Hibbert, who joined the team in a trade this summer. "This is the best I've felt in the past couple years. It seems to be working."

Even Kobe Bryant is a fan.

"I've found it to be very helpful, honestly," the 37-year-old star said between sips following a recent road game. "It has really helped me over the years."

The Lakers' results may not show it, but research says it's helping.

A 'natural, healthy' way to recover

DiFrancesco said he began to realize the power of milk about 10 years ago, when he discovered studies supporting its use.

Indeed, a 2014 study published in "Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism" found that milk is the best recovery drink after a workout.

"This is a natural, healthy way to cover all the macronutrients that are appropriate for muscle and tissue recovery, and there was evidence to support that," DiFrancesco said. "But I don't think it became a widespread thing because most people have protein drinks in their locker room, so most people assume those things are specifically designed for recovery so we better stick more to those."

"Guys get furious if their chocolate milk is taken. Nick [Young] and Roy [Hibbert], if they don't get their chocolate milk, they throw a hissy fit." Larry Nance Jr.

But why the chocolate?

"The thing about it is, it's a comfort food, so the guys really like it," DiFrancesco said. "They ask for it."

Chocolate is also good for them, said Dr. Cate Shanahan, director of the Lakers PRO Nutrition Program. Really.

"Cocoa itself has very low carbohydrates," she said. "Mostly it has fat and a good amount of protein in it, and a lot of minerals. It's a totally natural flavoring agent that doesn't get you more sugar. It's only the added sugar and the sugar in milk that makes it sweet, and cocoa has a good amount of magnesium and lots of antioxidants."

Of course, not just any chocolate milk from the grocery will do.

"Most chocolate milks that you buy from the store are skim milk but we didn't want that," Shanahan said. "We wanted the good fats in there because [Whole Foods does] have the ability to use grass-fed milk. That means that you don't need so much sugar because there's no shortage of opportunity for players and anyone else on the planet to get sugar molecules in their bodies, but those fatty acids are very special and we cannot make them ourselves."

So the Lakers asked Whole Foods, which caters the team's pregame, postgame and charter flight meals in each city, to create a low-sugar recipe with grass-fed whole milk.

A Los Angeles-based representative for the organic supermarket chain then contacts other Whole Foods in each city that the Lakers play in. The chocolate milk is made locally and then delivered to the arena before games.

"The chocolate milk I was drinking [growing up] was full-fat, super-healthy regular milk that I squeezed the bottle of Hershey's syrup into," said DiFrancesco, who grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont. "So my chocolate milk was not ideal for what I want these guys to be having. But the trick is, take the healthy version of things, make them taste the same that they always did but make them healthier. That's what we're trying to do."

Several players say they don't notice a difference between what they're drinking now and what they might have had growing up.

"It's good," Lakers rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell said. "It might be better for you, but it just tastes like chocolate milk to me."

When presented with other options that might seem more fitting for millionaire professional athletes, Julius Randle laughed at the fact that they're just drinking chocolate milk.

"Sometimes, you can over-complicate things. Chocolate milk, some things are just simple recovery things," Randle said. "Taking it back to the basics, man."

"... the trick is, take the healthy version of things, make them taste the same that they always did but make them healthier. That's what we're trying to do." Tim DiFrancesco, Lakers' strength and conditioning coach.

Nance, however, said he has noticed a difference.

"Sometimes on the days where I might be a little bit more achy and sore, I recover a little bit quicker," he said. "That's just if I were to drink some chocolate milk as compared to not. I don't know whether it's the chocolate milk or the treatment, but when I drink it, it seems to make me feel better."

It might seem hard to believe.

After all, it's chocolate milk.

"Hey, it tastes good," Nance said, "and it works."