On Your Health

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The Basics of Milk

Whole, non-fat, reduced, skimmed, almond, soy, rice — the grocery store milk aisle keeps expanding. We've come far from the days of simply choosing plain or chocolate! Milk fans tout its nutritional value, while critics question its worth. All the options and debate can seem overwhelming when all you want is something to pour over your morning cereal or put in your coffee. So, what’s the skinny on milk?

The Basics of Dairy Milk

The USDA recommends about three cups of milk a day for adults and children older than 9 years old to help meet daily dietary needs for nutrients like bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D. But what type of milk is best for you? It depends on what you want and need in your diet.

Nearly every store carries whole, reduced-fat and skim milk, but some might know what those terms actually mean. When milk is processed, different levels of fat can be taken out, or skimmed.

  • Whole milk is cow’s milk that hasn’t had its fat content stripped. The milk retains its fat (about 3.5 percent) and is slightly thick.
  • Reduced-fat milk retains 2 percent of fat.
  • Skim milk, (also known as fat-free or non-fat milk) contains no fat at all. This processing lowers calories and slightly alters the milk's taste.

Reduced-fat and skim milk lose some nutritional benefits when processed. Some producers then fortify their milk with solids to restore vitamins and thickness, although fortification and another dairy farming practice of giving cows added growth hormones (rBST) to aid in milk production are both controversial.

Some milk producers have started offering rBST-free milk from grass-fed, free-range cows to address these concerns. According to the Cleveland Clinic, not only do grass-fed cows make milk with significantly more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, but because they are less stressed than conventionally raised cows, they also tend to produce more milk and richer milk.

The Benefits

Dairy milk offers several key dietary requirements, but the levels of nutrients in each milk type can vary slightly. Reduced-fat and skim milk retain roughly the same amount of protein as whole milk but lose some of their vitamin content during processing and fat removal. Vitamins A and D, which are fat-soluble, are added back through fortification. Here is a breakdown of the amount of protein, potassium and calcium found in a single serving (one cup) of each type of milk.
  • Whole milk contains 8 grams of protein, 9 percent of your daily value of potassium, and 27 percent of your daily value of calcium.
  • Reduced-fat milk contains 8 grams of protein, 9-10 percent of your daily value of potassium, and 29 percent of your daily value of calcium.
  • Skim milk contains 8 grams of protein, 10-11 percent of your daily value of potassium, and 29 percent of your daily value of calcium.

In terms of vitamin A and vitamin D:

  • Whole milk contains 5 percent of your daily value of vitamin A and 24 percent of your daily value of vitamin D.
  • After fortification, reduced-fat milk contains 9-10 percent of your daily value of vitamin A and 29-32 percent of your daily value of vitamin D.
  • After fortification, skim milk contains 10 percent of your daily value of vitamin A and 25 percent of your daily value of vitamin D.

Which is Better for Health?

Reduced-fat milk and skim milk have fewer calories and higher amounts of vitamins than whole milk, and less saturated fat, which in large quantities is not good for your heart. But they also contain more added sugar than whole milk, which is a no-no, too.

While skim and reduced-fat milk might seem appealing to those who are trying to lose weight, experts debate whether they are more beneficial than whole milk for weight loss.

  • The large amount of added sugar in skim and reduced-fat milk is a problem for some.
  • Others take issue with possible health implications of the fortification process.
  • Some studies say the saturated fat in whole milk helps you feel more satisfied and full longer than drinking reduced-fat or skim milk.

“Many people are concerned by the amount of calories and fat found in whole milk, but it’s important to consider the nutritional benefits of it,” says Pam Patty, a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS. “It’s more important to be mindful of correct serving sizes.” When picking the milk type that's best for you, weigh the benefits of each and determine which one fills the requirements of your personal nutritional needs and preferences.

The Alternatives

If dairy isn’t an option for you based on vegan, vegetarian, or lactose dietary restrictions, there are plenty of alternatives available on the market. Like reduced-fat and skim milk, some vitamins and nutrients are added to the milk alternatives through fortification, although with non-dairy components. Like the different types of cow’s milk, each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Soy milk

Soy milk is created by the suspension of soybean flour in water. This widely used milk alternative is consumed by both vegans and the lactose intolerant.

Almond milk 

Almond milk is plant-based and made by grinding almonds into a pulp. The pulp is mixed with water and then strained. Almond milk is consumable by vegans and lactose intolerant folks.

Unsweetened almond milk is low in calories but has more calcium than dairy milk. Read the package, though, because it varies. We like Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Unsweetened Vanilla. One cup contains 30 calories, 45 percent of your daily calcium, half of your vitamin E, and a quarter of your vitamin D daily requirements.

Rice milk

Rice milk is made from milled white or brown rice. It’s often unsweetened and is a lactose-free, dairy-free alternative. One concern some have with rice milk is its high level of carbohydrates.

The Bottom Line

Milk can be a powerhouse resource and a beneficial component of a diet. It’s best to determine your personal dietary needs when determining which milk type is right for you. As always, consider things like your current weight and diet, your level of activity and factors like age. Consult a dietitian for any questions you have about your personal nutrition, your dairy intake, alternative non-dairy resources and any changes you want to make in your diet.