When you drink a glass of milk, you gain complete protein and a significant amount of calcium and vitamin B-12. But unfortified milk has two concerns. It's notoriously high in fat, especially unhealthy saturated fat. It also lacks vitamin D, which your body needs to absorb the milk's calcium. Two percent milk helps lower the fat, while vitamin D milk ensures you’ll get more of this essential vitamin.
Look for Vitamin D on the Label
Unfortified whole milk contains more natural vitamin D than any of the reduced-fat milk products, yet it barely has 1 percent of your recommended daily allowance. When you see vitamin D on the label, it means the milk was fortified with vitamin D. This is an important distinction because adding vitamin D to milk is voluntary. As of publication, the FDA does not require producers to fortify milk products with vitamin D. However, FDA regulations do state that the milk must be fortified if the label declares vitamin D was added. Since very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, fortified milk is one of the top dietary sources.
Two Percent Tops Whole
Two percent refers to how much fat remains in the milk, but the percentage is based on amount of fat by weight. Whole milk retains all the natural fat and is 3.5 percent fat by weight. The fat can be removed during processing to produce lower-fat brands. As its name suggests, 2 percent milk retains 2 percent of the milk fat by weight. Two percent milk is also called reduced-fat milk. About 60 percent of milk fat consists of saturated fats that increase levels of cholesterol. It's healthier to choose milk with reduced fat because it also contains less saturated fat.
Compare the Fat and Vitamin D
Almost all of the milk produced in the United States is voluntarily fortified with vitamin D, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. Regardless of the fat content, fortified milk contains about 120 to 124 international units per cup, or 20 percent of your recommended daily allowance. You'll get 5 grams of total fat, including 3 grams of saturated fat from a 1-cup serving of 2 percent milk. By comparison, whole milk has 8 grams of total fat and 5 grams of saturated fat.
Tally of Other Nutrients
The good news is that you can go with reduced fat or fat-free milk without giving up nutrients. Skim, 2 percent and whole milk all have 8 grams of protein in 1 cup and about the same amount of magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. A 1-cup serving of all types of milk also supplies almost 30 percent of your daily calcium and almost half of your daily allowance of vitamin B-12. As the percentage of fat goes down, you also lose calories. One cup of whole milk has 149 calories and 2 percent contains 122 calories.
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin D
- Purdue University: Milk
- NutritionValue.org: Milk, Without Added Vitamin A and Vitamin D, 3.25 Percent Milkfat, Whole
- NutritionValue.org: Milk, With Added Vitamin D, 3.25 Percent Milkfat, Whole
- NutritionValue.org: Milk, With Added Vitamin A and Vitamin D, 2 Percent Milkfat, Fluid, Reduced Fat
- NutritionValue.org: Milk, Without Added Vitamin A and Vitamin D, 2 Percent Milkfat, Fluid, Reduced Fat
- Dairy Council of California: Types of Milk
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Vitamin D Fortification in the United States and Canada – Current Status and Data Needs