Decoding the Different Types of Milk

Now, more than ever, the choices available in your grocery’s dairy aisle might be just a bit overwhelming. Do you choose the red cap or the blue cap, the organic or the regular, chocolate, lactose free, or dairy-free? And that’s just fluid milk – let’s not even talk about all the yogurt options (we’ll do that in another post altogether)!

Let’s jump right in and start with cap colors and milk fat percentages. Contrary to popular belief, there is not a universal cap color for whole, 2%, 1% and skim milks – milk cap colors vary from brand to brand. Second, the milk percentage is equal to the amount of fat in the milk by weight.

Whole milk is 3.5% fat – closest to the way it comes from the cow – providing 8 grams of fat in 1 cup. Reduced-fat (or 2%) milk will have less fat (approximately 5 grams per cup) and fewer calories than whole milk, but the same calcium, protein, vitamins and mineral. Low-fat (1%) milk has even less fat per cup (about 2.5 grams) while fat-free milk, also known as nonfat and skim, will have 0 grams of fat, but the same powerful package of calcium plus eight other nutrients. Thus, the only difference between the various types of milks is the amount of fat, and consequently, the total calories. Regardless of your choice in cow’s milk, you can rest assured that all contain the same nine essential nutrients.

When it comes to organic milk, in terms of quality and nutrition, there is no difference between organic and regular milk. Strict government standards ensure that both regular and organic milk are wholesome, safe and nutritious. Organic dairy foods must meet the requirements of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The difference lies in farm management practices.

What about chocolate milk? Nutritious doesn’t have to be boring! Chocolate milk strikes the perfect balance between good nutrition and good fun, and delivers nutrients many kids and adults fall short on. Whether you are looking for a nutrient-rich choice after exercise, or a great tasting beverage with all the nutrition of white milk, pour one more.

Even if you are lactose intolerant, many options exist that allow you to enjoy the benefits of milk. Lactose-free milk might be the solution you are looking for. Lactose-free milk is regular milk – it has the same nine essential nutrients, just without the lactose. Lactose-free milk tastes slightly sweeter than regular milk because the lactose has been broken down into its two simple sugars. Lactose-free milk is a great choice for people with lactose intolerance and it comes in a variety of options, including chocolate.

There are many nondairy beverages on the market today touted as milk alternatives or substitutes. When it comes to nutrition, most plant-based alternatives try to match the unique profile of cow’s milk by fortifying with nutrients they don’t naturally contain. Additionally, these alternatives, whether made from soybeans, almonds, cashews, rice, pea or coconut, have no standard of identity – no standard nutrient composition – meaning nutrients may vary wildly from brand to brand. So buyer beware. Milk has a standard of identity, meaning that consumers can feel confident that in every glass of milk, they are getting the same nine essential nutrients. At less than 25 cents per cup, milk is a nutritious bargain and a great return on investment.

Regular, organic, chocolate or lactose-free – all are wholesome and safe.

By Jenna Allen, M.S., RDN

Jenna is a registered dietitian with a passion for communicating science in an approachable way. She has been part of the Dairy MAX team since 2008. When she isn't working, Jenna is trying out new recipes with her three kids and working on her food photography. Learn more about Jenna.

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