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Home Healthy living Nutrition Food choices Milk - which one?

Milk – which one’s right for you?

Glass of milk
All about milk
How to choose
Wrapping up

These days, the milk section of the supermarket can be quite confusing. There’s so many options to choose from – low fat, skim, extra-fat, milk with omega-3, organic milk, soymilk and milk boosted with extra calcium.  And when you notice that they cost more than regular low-fat or home-brand milk, you start to think twice. Is it worth paying the extra and will it really help your health problem?  Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby compares the different varieties available, so that you’re not left crying over spilt milk.

All about milk

One of our basic foods, cow’s milk is the basis of all dairy products and is a major ingredient in foods like yoghurt, cheese, custard, white sauces and soups. Milk is considered essential during childhood to supply protein, vitamins and bone-building calcium – for the first two years of life, milk is the largest single item of food consumed.

Milk is a complete food, containing all vitamins and minerals. It consists of 88 per cent water with around three per cent protein, four per cent milk fat and five per cent lactose or milk sugar. The protein in milk is high quality, supplying all of the eight essential amino acids required by humans. Milk fat or butterfat is high in saturates with over 60 per cent saturated fat, 33 per cent monounsaturated and less then five per cent polyunsaturated, so low-fat milks are recommended for those on cholesterol-lowering programs.

Milk is rich in calcium and its calcium is better absorbed than from other foods. A 300ml carton of milk (whole or skim) contains some 350 milligrams of calcium, which is one-third of the recommended day’s intake of 1000mg for adults. Without milk (or its calcium-rich products yoghurt and cheese), it is quite difficult to reach this total of 1000mg, and obtaining sufficient calcium in the teenage and early adult years is critical to the prevention of osteoporosis or brittle bones.

As well as calcium, milk is a good source of the minerals phosphorus and potassium. Milk carries B group vitamins, particularly riboflavin (vitamin B2). Full cream milk carries vitamins A and D, which are fat soluble. Milk’s riboflavin is susceptible to sunlight and milk in plastic bottles exposed to direct sunlight may lose up to 50 per cent of the vitamin in two hours. Paperboard cartons significantly reduce the penetration of light but do not block it completely. So don’t leave your milk out in full sun.

How to choose

Now that we know milk is an important part of our diets, the question is which one to choose.

Full cream milk

Reduced-fat milk

Low-fat milk

Skim milk/no-fat

Nutrition information

High calcium

Soy milk

Lactose-free

Plant sterol milks

Omega-3 milks Goat’s milk

UHT (Longlife) milk

Farmers Best

Organic/raw milk

Full cream milk

The original milk with around 3.8 per cent milk fat, this still remains the biggest selling type of milk.  Like all milks, it offers quality protein, calcium, B vitamins as well as the fat-soluble vitamins A and D (in fact, it’s one of the few food sources of vitamin D which we usually get from sunlight on our skin).

If you tend to drink it by the glass (250ml), it ends up contributing a fair amount of saturated fat.  So with our overweight sedentary population, nutritionists now recommend anyone over the age of two consume reduced-fat or low-fat milk types.  But full cream still has a place.

Best for:

  • Hungry teens
  • Growing children who burn up a lot of energy or are underweight
  • If you need to put on weight – say if you have lost weight due to illness or are underweight

Reduced-fat milk (often labelled ‘low-fat’)

Reduced-fat milks (Lite White, Lite Start, Physical, Rev, Trim) contain from one per cent to 1.5 per cent fat, which is around one-third of what’s found in full cream milk. Children over the age of two can drink reduced fat milk. Vitamin A and D levels are lower than full cream milk as the natural vitamins are removed when the fat is removed. Some milks may have added vitamin A and D to replace those removed; others have extra protein or calcium added.

Best for:

  • A good general milk for families with older children.
  • Most milks are the same in terms of food value so shop for home-brands.

Low-fat milk

Low-fat milks (Hi-Lo, Physical no fat) have less than one per cent milk fat with some as low as 0.15 per cent.  They are made by combining skim with non-fat milk powder or by ultrafiltration.   They are usually richer in calcium, protein and lactose and have a ‘fuller’ flavour, which most people find more acceptable than skim milk.  Some of these milks can fall into the no-fat category – it’s just how the manufacturer has chosen to label them.

Best for:

  • Anyone who wants to combine the best of low-fat with more calcium.

Skim milk/no-fat

Skim or no-fat milks (Shape, Pura Tone, Skimmer, Skinny Milk) contain less than 0.15 per cent fat so are virtually fat free.  This means they have half the kilojoules and virtually none of the fat or cholesterol of full cream milk. With the fat, however, go the fat-soluble vitamins A and D, which is why skim milks are not suitable for infants (you’ll see this listed on the label).  However they still carry all the protein and calcium of regular milk.

In days gone by, skim milk had a “watery” taste with less mouthfeel than reduced-fat milks. These days, low-fat milks have a better taste thanks to extra milk solids added or the presence of gums to thicken it.

Best for:

  • Anyone on a strict low-fat diet (e.g. gallbladder problems, liver troubles)
  • Anyone who’s serious about losing weight

High calcium

Calcium-boosted milks (Pura Boost, Hi-Lo, Calcium Plus, Anlene) are the highest in calcium per 100ml or per glass so are an easy way to maximise your intake without having to drink a lot.  Most are low-fat and contain added vitamin D and sometimes phosphorus both of which are needed to build bone. These milks are more expensive than regular milks, so if you’re getting enough calcium in your day, there isn’t any need to spend the extra money.

Best for:

  • Anyone with osteoporosis or bone fractures (or come from a family with a history of it).
  • If you struggle to meet your calcium needs (1000 mg a day) and don’t want to drink a lot of milk, this is the answer.
  • Those on a restricted food intake who can’t get enough calcium (e.g. frail older women, anyone recovering from illness or surgery, if you’ve had chemotherapy and can’t eat much).

Soy milk

Available in full-fat and low-fat versions, soy milk is similar to cow’s milk in nutrients and kilojoules , but it can vary a great deal in its calcium content.  Soy milk can be made in two different ways which may influence your choice at the supermarket:

1. Made from whole beans that are soaked, heated and then crushed to extract the milky juice which is blended with water, sweeteners like malted barley or sugar, vegetable oil and salt. Generally lower in calcium (20-80mg glass) but rich in protein and B vitamins. Regarded as more ‘natural’.

2. Blended from soy protein isolate powder, (which is processed from defatted soy flour and contains around 90 per cent pure protein), together with water, oil, sweeteners like sugar or maltodextrin, gums, emulsifier, vitamins, mineral salts and calcium. Generally fortified with vitamins A, B1, B2, B12 and calcium to a level similar to milk (250-290mg per glass). Better flavour, less ‘beany’ taste.

Best for:

  • Anyone with a special dietary need such as lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose) or milk allergy
  • Those who wish to avoid cow’s milk for health reasons such as vegans and vegetarians

Lactose-free

Zymil is the only lactose-free fresh milk available in Australia. It has the same level of protein, fat, calcium and vitamins as regular milk but without the lactose (milk sugar). It is also available in reduced fat and long life versions.

Lactose-free milk starts out as regular milk which is first pasteurised and homogenised. A natural enzyme is then added and the milk is packaged and stored for 4-5 days while the enzyme goes to work breaking down the milk sugar. By the time you buy it, the lactose has been broken down and converted into two simple sugars that are more easily digested. Lactose-free milk can be used in exactly the same way as regular milk for cooking.

Best for:

  • Anyone with a special dietary need such as lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose) including most Asians and Australian Aborigines.

Plant sterol milks

Milks containing added plant sterols (Pura Heart Active, Logicol)  are designed to target heart health. Like the sterol spreads, the plant sterols block the absorption of cholesterol and so reduce your cholesterol levels. 

A serve (250ml glass) contains 0.8g of plant sterols. To get the cholesterol lowering benefits of plant sterols, research shows you need to consume 2-3g of plant sterols each day – which is equal to three glasses or 750ml each day (you could also eat a combination of milk plus spread plus yoghurt). These milks cost more. If money is not a problem, then go for the plant sterol containing milks, but if money is an issue, a regular low-fat milk may be a better option.

Best for:

  • Anyone with high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes (where you’re more likely to have heart troubles). Remember you need to drink the milk EVERY DAY (or consume enough of the milk or spread or yoghurt to total three serves). They won’t work if you don’t!

Omega-3 milks

Omega-3 can now be found in some milks like Farmers Best or Logicol in a bid to improve heart health and reduce inflammation-related problems like arthritis. The omega-3 acts to reduce inflammation in the blood vessels, thereby promoting a healthy heart. The inclusion of omega-3 in milk does incur an extra fee, with these milks costing more than regular milks. But if you want to save money on milk and still get heart health benefits, why not try making lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise levels, reducing saturated fat intake and increasing fibre intake instead?

Best for:

  • Anyone with high blood pressure or heart problem (not high cholesterol)
  • Children who won’t eat fish and seafood

Goat’s milk

Goat’s milk is very similar to cow’s milk in nutritional value, except for a significantly lower level of folic acid.  Apart from a slightly higher fat content, it provides approximately the same amounts of protein, calcium, most other B vitamins and lactose.

Around 80 per cent of goat’s milk is consumed by people who believe they are allergic to cow’s milk. The remainder react just as badly to goat’s milk, because its proteins have the same immune cross-reactivity as do those in cow’s milk, so both will trigger a reaction in susceptible people.  

Most Australians are unaware that goat’s milk is sold raw (unpasteurised) and may carry potentially dangerous bacteria, even though strict hygiene measures are followed during milking.  It should not be fed to infants under one year of age.

UHT (Longlife) milk

UHT stands for “ultra heat treated”. It is subjected to a much higher temperature during pasteurisation, which inactivates all bacteria and enzymes but does not harm the protein or vitamins.  It is then packed aseptically and, if unopened, keeps for about five months unrefrigerated. Once opened, however, it must be refrigerated. Available as regular, reduced-fat, low-fat and skim milk.

Best for:

  • Same comments as for fresh milks.

Farmers Best

This milk is made by removing almost all the saturated fat from regular milk and replacing it with a little monounsaturated fat so it’s healthier for the heart. It was one of the earliest ‘modified’ milks.

At 1.4 per cent, Farmers Best has a similar fat content to light milks but a lot less saturated fat. Only one-third of the total fat is saturated compared to two-thirds in other milks. It tastes better than skim milk and you get more calcium.  

Best for:

  • It’s hard to know who will benefit from this.  If you have high cholesterol, you’re better off with a milk with plant sterols.  If your cholesterol is normal and you just want to cut back on saturated fat but you don’t like the taste of skim milk, then Farmers Best can fit the bill.

Organic/raw milk

Organic milk is produced from cows that are reared in a humane way without antibiotics or hormones administered. They graze on pasture that is free from synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. The milk ideally should be packed in recyclable paper containers and is usually not homogenised (so the cream rises to the surface instead of being dispersed throughout).

To ensure you’re buying the genuine thing, look for a milk that carries a certification logo from one of the organic bodies such as National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAAA) or Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) or Biodynamic Research Institute (Demeter).

Raw unpasteurised milk is sometimes sold at health food shops and is sought after by alternative health groups for its ‘friendly bacteria’ and enzymes. The benefits of raw milk need to be weighed up against the risk of disease.

In Australia, by law, ALL milk must be pasteurized.  Pastuerisation involves a brief heat treatment which inactivates disease-producing bacteria that could cause TB or Brucellosis. However it may also inactivate some of the bio-active substances in fresh milk that have health benefits and slightly reduce levels of vitamins.  

Best for:

  • Those who are concerned about the environment or seek to eat as naturally as possibly or to avoid additives.

Wrapping up

There are a lot of different varieties of milk in our supermarkets, and they all vary in cost. In terms of value for money, nothing beats the standard regular or reduced-fat milk. They both provide your family with bone-building calcium and phosphorus, protein, carbohydrate and riboflavin, and they’re low in saturated fat. If you have a particular condition such as osteoporosis or heart disease, the specialised milks are more concentrated in calcium and/or vitamin D or carry sterols or omega-3s and may be more beneficial for you.

Resources

Brief nutrition information per 100ml of milk (half a glass)

All figures approximate

 Type

Kilojoules Fat (g) Calcium (mg)
Full cream milk (regular) 265  3.5-4.0  118 
Reduced fat milk 212 1.4 134
Skim milk 148 0.1 120
High calcium milk 241 1.4 200
Soy milk (regular) * 270 3.4 120
Soy lite  * 170 0.9 120
Lactose free milk 196 1.5 125
Plant sterol milks  174  1.0  123

*  Check the label – these soy milks are fortified with added calcium which is not absorbed as well as the calcium from cow’s milk.  

Extended nutrition information for 100ml of milk (half a glass)

 MilkEnergy (kJ)Protein (g)Fat (g)Sat Fat (g)Carbs (g)Sugars (g)Sodium (g)Calcium (mg)Extras
Coles Whole Milk 265  3.2  3.4  2.2 4.9  4.9  44  118 

Vitamin A - 48ug
Riboflavin - 200mg

Coles Low Fat Milk 193  3.3  1.4  0.9  5.0  5.0  43  124   
A2 Full Cream Milk 271  3.1  3.6  2.8  5.0  5.0  48  117  With Beta-casein (not less than 1.0g)
A2 Light Milk 189  3.1  1.3  0.9  5.2  5.2  69  120  With Beta-casein (not less than 1.0g)
Farmers Best with omega-3  229  4.3  1.4  0.4  6.2  6.0  62  145  With omega-3
Anlene – more than just calcium  230  3.8  1.4  0.9  6.8  6.6  59  200 

Magnesium - 32mg
Zinc 1.2 mg
Vitamin D - 2.0mg

Pure Organic – unhomogenised  288  3.2  4.1  2.7  4.8  4.8  58  123   
Parmalat Pure Organic 99% Fat Free  182  3.4  1.0  0.7  5.1  5.1  58  126   
Pura Gold Extra Creamy  314  3.2  4.8  3.1  4.8  4.8  44  115   
Pura Light Start  204  4.0  1.0  0.5  5.8  5.8  140  50   
Pura Boost – Ultra High Calcium  241  4.5  1.4  0.9  6.7  6.7  50  200  Folate - 40mg
Vitamin D - 0.5ug
Phosphorus - 148mg
Pura Skim 148  3.3  0.1  0.06  5.2  5.2  43  120   
Tone Pura  163  4.0  0.1  0.06  5.4  5.4  50  140   
Light White  212  3.9  1.4  0.9  5.5  5.5  57  134  Riboflavin 192mg 
Pura Kids Omega-3 DHA  265  3.2  3.4  2.2  4.9  4.9  44  118  Omega-3 - 12mg
DHA - 11.7mg
EPA - 0.3mg
Pura Heart Active  174  3.3  1.0  0.5  4.8  4.8  53  123  Plant sterols - 0.32mg 
Zymil Lactose Free  271  3.3  3.6  2.4  4.7  4.7  58  123   
Goat’s Milk  258  3.2  3.8  2.5  3.7  3.7  68  113   
Buttermilk  209  3.6  1.8  1.1  4.2  4.2  52  123  Riboflavin 177mg 
Soy Milk  270  3.4 3.4  0.4  5.0  2.0  55  120   
Soy Lite  170  3.4  0.9  0.1  4.7  1.9  45  120   


Content Updated June 27, 2008

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