Is whole milk healthier for you and your family? Find out the facts about how milk is made and which kind you should be buying.
So much of our food talk has become black and white. Good foods. Bad food. Clean foods. Processed foods.
Milk is no exception.
In the last several years, research has shown that saturated fat (the kind found in animal products like meat and dairy) may not be the heart disease risk it was thought to be. Studies have also shown that there may be some advantages to drinking whole milk over fat-free.
Yet this has somehow been turned into exaggerated, inaccurate messages–and black and white thinking has taken over. Lately, I’ve seen articles claiming that not only is whole milk healthier, but also that fat-free milk is dangerous and has no nutritional value. Say what?
Here’s what you should know:
Drinking whole milk may have some benefits.
Research has found that among adult women, higher intake of high-fat dairy was actually linked to less weight gain than intake of low-fat dairy. And a recent study of children ages 1-6 years old found that those who drank whole milk had higher vitamin D levels and lower BMI (body mass index) than those who drank low-fat fat. What’s at work? Since it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, Vitamin D may be better absorbed when it’s paired with the fat in whole milk. Weight and BMI differences may be because whole milk is more filling and satisfying, which could lower overall calorie intake.
Most milk is processed.
Unless you’re getting milk straight from the cow, your milk has gone through processing: Pasteurization (when milk is briefly heated at a high temperature) kills potentially harmful bacteria. Homogenization (when milk is pushed through a strainer) keeps it from separating. When raw milk enters the processing facility, the fat is removed by centrifugation (spinning at high speed), not with a chemical process as you may have read. Then fat is added back in depending on the kind of milk being made: more fat added to make whole milk, less to make low-fat, and none to make fat-free.
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Whole milk is not more nutritious than fat-free and low-fat.
All varieties of milk, from whole to fat-free, have the same amounts of nine essential nutrients including protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins. And most fluid milk is fortified with vitamin D. Lower-fat varieties also have vitamin A added (milk fat is naturally rich in vitamin A so whole milk may not need additional A). Sometimes this is spun in a scary-sounding way (“synthetic chemical vitamins are added!”) but this is simply fortification designed to combat rickets (similarly, folic acid is added to enriched grain products to reduce neural tube defects in babies).
Fat-free milk does not contain added sugar.
You will see sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel of ALL milk because it contains natural milk sugar (called lactose). There is no additional sugar in fat-free milk.
Recommendations may change.
For now, the advice from the Dietary Guidelines (and the American Academy of Pediatrics) remains that everyone over the age of two should choose low-fat or fat-free milk instead of whole to limit calories from saturated fat. As more research emerges about saturated fat, my guess is that we’ll see less focus on the saturated fat in milk and other foods and a shift in those recommendations.
But in the meantime, here’s my two cents: If your kids prefer whole or two-percent milk, buy that kind. If your kids like fat-free or low-fat, they’re still getting the important nutrients. Buy the kind you and your kids like and will drink.
Just don’t buy into the hype.