Gone are the days of simply knowing the cap color you want in the dairy aisle. Now, you have choices when it comes to what type of milk to buy. A lot of choices.
Do you really know which type is best for your lifestyle, and does it really matter? Sure, milk variety may seem like an insignificant choice in the sea of grocery store decisions, but it's time to learn a little more about what's in the dairy case.
1. Whole Milk
Whole milk (containing 3.25 percent fat) has about 150 calories, 8 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat per cup. You'd be hard pressed to find a professional health organization that promotes full-fat dairy for health. In fact, for milk specifically, the American Heart Association recommends skim or nonfat varieties for anyone over the age of 2 (kids younger than 2 should be leaning into whole milk).
Read more: What are Some Disadvantages of Milk?
You might feel fuller from a higher fat intake — aka drinking whole milk — which can reduce overall calorie intake throughout the day. Women who consumed full-fat dairy gained less weight than those who stuck to low-fat dairy products, according to April 2016 research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
2. Reduced-Fat, Skim or Nonfat Milk
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans still recommend low-fat or nonfat dairy for everyday drinking. If you're thinking about which type of reduced-fat milk to drink, here's the breakdown:
- Reduced-fat (2 percent fat): 130 calories, 8 grams protein, 5 grams fat
- Skim (1 to 1.5 percent fat): 100 calories, 8 grams protein, 2.5 grams fat
- Nonfat (0 percent fat): 90 calories, 8 grams protein, 0 grams fat
If you are on a calorie-restricted diet, this is a great place to cut back. You get the same amount of protein and nutrients for fewer calories and less saturated fat than full-fat milk.
3. Lactose-Free Milk
A quick science lesson on lactose: It's the sugar found in milk. In order for your body to properly digest lactose, you need an enzyme called lactase. No lactase or not enough? That lactose is going to ferment in your gut and cause you all kinds of uncomfortable digestive issues, according to Mayo Clinic. The common remedy for this issue is dairy avoidance, but that's not necessary now that there are so many low-lactose and lactose-free milk options.
Historically, one of the only options for those with lactose intolerance was milk that had lactase added to it, but new manufacturing practices are capable of filtering out the lactose instead (plus, keeping all the protein). You will pay a little more for ultra-filtered milk, but you will be avoiding lactose.
4. A2 Milk
If you avoid milk altogether because of digestion woes, you may not actually be lactose intolerant. Is your mind blown? Instead, you may have difficulty digesting the A1 protein, according to September 2012 research published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. There are proteins in milk called caseins and cows naturally produce both A1 and A2 proteins. A2 milk does not contain the A1 protein.
People who drank milk containing only the A2 protein had less gastrointestinal distress than those who drank milk with both proteins, according to an October 2017 study in Nutrition Journal. Nutritionally, there is no difference between milk with and without the A1 protein.
5. Organic Cow’s Milk
The organic industry is very tightly regulated, including organic dairy. For milk to be sold as organic, the cows that produce it must be:
- Fed only organic feed, free of pesticides and fertilizers
- Not given hormones
- Provided with free access to pasture 120 days out of the year
Another common regulation surrounding organic milk is the use of antibiotics. No antibiotic residue can be found in any type of milk, organic or conventional, and antibiotics for bacterial infections are allowed in both types of dairy production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The nutrition profile of organic milk is very similar to conventional milk. The more a cow feeds on grass, the higher the omega-3 content in the milk. In other words, more grazing time is a good thing.
6. Grass-Fed Milk
Like organic milk, there are certain conditions that must be present for a milk to be labeled as grass-fed, sometimes called grassmilk. However, the conditions for a milk to be labeled grass-fed are much more stringent than organic, and this often translates to a higher cost for the consumer.
Organic milk from grass-fed cows had 147 percent more omega-3s than conventional milk and 52 percent more than organic milk, in February 2018 research published in the journal Food Science & Nutrition. Whole grassmilk will give you the same nutrition as whole milk — 150 calories, 8 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat. You can also get grassmilk in reduced-fat varieties.
7. Flavored Milk
Have you ever had cotton candy milk? It's out there, and if you didn't love milk before, it may convert you. As lovely as it sounds to flavor your milk with tastes like strawberry or coffee, you might not be doing yourself any favors in the nutrition department.
Yes, you are going to get all of the same protein and nutrients from that milk. With it, though, comes added sugar. Always look at the ingredients to see where the sugar falls. The closer it is to the top of the list, the more sugar there is.
However, if you're into sipping low-fat chocolate milk as a post-workout drink, don't ditch it just yet. It may be superior to many sports drinks, due to the balance of carbohydrates, protein, fats, water and electrolytes, according to a June 2019 review published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
8. Raw Milk
You are either a raw milk advocate or you wouldn't dare drink it; there is usually no in-between. Pasteurization (heating milk to kill pathogens) came about because of the amount of foodborne illness associated with drinking raw milk. Nutritionally, there is little difference between pasteurized milk and raw milk, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Over a 12-year period, ending in 2016, there were over 2,000 illnesses and five deaths attributed to unpasteurized dairy consumption. Those with compromised immune systems, children and the elderly should not drink raw milk due to the risk of contamination.
9. Goat’s Milk
One cup of goat's milk contains about 170 calories, 8 grams of protein and 10 grams of fat — similar to what you get in whole cow's milk. Because goat's milk contains 9 grams of lactose per serving (compared to 12 grams in cow's milk) and has a different protein structure, some people with lactose intolerance find it easier to digest.
The type of casein in goat's milk is mainly A2, according to a December 2017 study published in the Korean Journal for Food Science of Animal Resources, which may also explain why some individuals are able to digest goat milk better than cow's milk.
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Calcium Fact Sheet"
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin D Fact Sheet"
- European Society of Cardiology: "Current advice to limit dairy intake should be reconsidered"
- Preventative Medicine Reports: "Full fat milk consumption protects against severe childhood obesity in Latinos"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dairy consumption in association with weight change and risk of becoming overweight or obese in middle-aged and older women: a prospective cohort study"
- Food Science and Nutrition: "Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage‐based rations, with nutrition modeling of diet outcomes"
- Today's Dietitian: "Organics: Organic Dairy Myths and Facts"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Ocolate milk for recovery from exercise: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials"
- FDA: "Raw Milk Misconceptions and the Danger of Raw Milk Consumption"
- PLos Current: "Recent Trends in Unpasteurized Fluid Milk Outbreaks, Legalization, and Consumption in the United States"
- Korean Journal for Food Science of Animal Resources: "Hypoallergenic and Physicochemical Properties of the A2 β-Casein Fraction of Goat Milk"
- Nutrition Journal: "Effects of cow’s milk beta-casein variants on symptoms of milk intolerance in Chinese adults: a multicentre, randomised controlled study"
- Mayo Clinic: "Lactose Intolerance"
- Alissa Rumsey: Nutrition and Wellness Consulting
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Is Goat's Milk Lower in Lactose than Cow's Milk?