A Buyer's Guide to Milk
How to choose the right milk for you and your family.
With its balanced mix of carbs and protein and rich supply of calcium and other bone-strengthening nutrients, (cow’s) milk certainly does a body good. But with so many choices on grocers’ shelves, how do you know which one you should buy? EatingWell helps you cut through the confusion with this guide.
Whole, reduced-fat, low-fat or nonfat?
Consider whole milk—which delivers 150 calories and 8 grams fat (5 grams saturated) per cup—a once-in-a-while treat. Nutrition experts recommend drinking low-fat (1%) milk (100 calories, 2.5 grams fat) or nonfat milk (80 calories, 0.5 grams fat) to limit intake of the saturated fats that boost risk of heart disease*. Don’t be fooled: reduced-fat (2%) milk is not a low-fat food. One cup has 5 grams fat, 3 of them the saturated kind. You won’t miss out on milk’s nutritional boons when you opt for low-fat or nonfat milk (sometimes called "skim"): per cup, all varieties deliver about one-third of the recommended daily value for calcium and at least 20 percent of the daily value for riboflavin, phosphorus and vitamin D.
*Infants under age 2, who need extra fat to support a developing brain, should drink whole milk.
Organic or not?
According to The Nielsen Company, sales of organic milk jumped from $550 million in 2003 to almost $900 million in the first quarter of 2007. Polls suggest people associate organic milk with superior nutrition, better treatment of animals and a healthier planet. But there’s no evidence that organic milk is more nutritious. While preliminary research has suggested that grass-fed cows produce milk with more vitamin E and omega-3 fats than cows fed grains, organic standards don’t require that cows be solely grass-fed. (Farmers must use organic fertilizers and pesticides and may not give cows preventive antibiotics or supplemental growth hormones; animals must also get some time outdoors.)
This type of milk is basically regular cow’s milk minus lactose, the natural sugar in milk. It provides all of the same healthful nutrients (e.g., protein and calcium), just not the sugar that stokes digestive problems for up to 50 million Americans.
Raw vs. pasteurized?
During pasteurization, milk is heated to high temperatures (>161°F) then rapidly cooled to kill harmful bacteria, including salmonella, E.coli 0157:H7 and listeria. While raw-milk enthusiasts claim heating milk destroys its natural enzymes and beneficial bacteria, studies show that the nutritional differences between pasteurized and raw milk are slight. What’s more, public health experts warn that drinking raw milk is like playing Russian roulette. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that raw milk accounted for 1,007 illnesses and two deaths between 1998 and 2005.
RBST-free or not?
The claim "rbST-free" indicates milk produced without using the artificial growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST. Giving this hormone to a cow boosts its milk production by about five quarts per day. Some consumers believe that treating cows with the supplemental hormone is inhumane, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that treating cows with rbST does not harm the animals—or significantly affect the hormone content of milk. In fact, all milks—even from cows not treated with rbST—contain hormones. Note: All organic milks are rbST-free, but not all rbST-free milks are organic (i.e., farmers may use pesticides, fertilizers, etc.).
Shopping Tip for Milk: Some people swear milk tastes better in pretty glass bottles, but it’s best stored in opaque containers to help prevent milk’s riboflavin—an extremely light-sensitive B vitamin—from breaking down.