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The A–Z of Cheese Nutrition: Navigating Milk

In this blog series, registered dietitian Marissa Donovan gives you the scoop on the latest nutrition science surrounding cheese. From the farm, to the store, to your kitchen, she’s got you covered on what you need to know about cheese and your health. Check out last week’s post on lactose intolerance. Read on to learn more!

Travel down the milk aisle in the store and you’re bound to see more options than you ever thought possible. Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, almond milk, soymilk, chocolate, strawberry—you name it, and it’s probably on those shelves. Having the land of plenty in the milk section is great, but it can also cause a whole lot of confusion. Among the most frequently asked questions about milk are: Should I choose fat-free or whole milk? Is organic milk better for me? Let’s dig into the science here and figure out what’s true and what’s not, hopefully making it easier to choose your milk next time you shop.

What’s the deal with the saturated fat and milk?

When considering cow’s milk, there are four major varieties you will see: skim milk, 1% milk, 2% milk, and whole milk. But what do these percentages actually mean?

Skim milk: all of the fat has been removed (technically 0.2% fat content or less is considered skim). One cup of skim milk has 0 grams of fat and is 83 calories.

1% milk/low fat milk: this milk is 1% milk fat. One cup of 1% milk has 2.4 grams of fat and is 102 calories.

2% milk/reduced fat milk: this milk is 2% milk fat. One cup of 2% milk has 4.8 grams of fat and is 122 calories.

Whole milk/Vitamin D milk: whole milk is 3.5% milk fat. One cup of whole milk has 7.9 grams of fat and is 149 calories.

The only difference in all four of these milks is the fat content, and therefore calories, so they all have the same amount of calcium, vitamin D, and all other vitamins and minerals.

So what’s this I hear about drinking full-fat milk being better for me?

The body needs fat. Fat, along with protein and carbohydrates, is a key source of energy. Fat also assists with nerve transmission, and helps your body absorb certain vitamins and minerals. However, not all fats are created equal. Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are considered good fats, because they can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Artificial trans fats, which are not so good for you, are made through a process called hydrogenation, and were recently removed from our food supply because of a strong link to heart disease. Finally, we have saturated fats—the main fat in dairy—which, scientifically, have mixed reviews. New research suggests that saturated fats are not necessarily as bad for us as we once thought. So we should have been drinking whole milk all along? 

The key in the saturated-fats-are-good vs. saturated-fats-are-bad debate remains in the replacement nutrients. “Replacement nutrient” is nutrition fancy-speak for what you’re eating instead of the thing you’ve eliminated. As explained in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee,

“Rather than focusing purely on reduction, emphasis should also be placed on replacement and shifts in food intake and eating patterns. Sources of saturated fat should be replaced with unsaturated fat, particularly polyunsaturated fatty acids.”

Swapping out saturated fat for unsaturated fats can help your heart, but eating refined carbohydrates in place of saturated fat (which many do) won’t help, and will likely hurt, your health. Oftentimes, low-fat products have upped the sugar and other not-so-good things in them, which is why they can actually be worse for you than full-fat versions. Milk is not an example of this (unless it is flavored milk). Any of these milks can fit into your diet. The key is to remember that excess fat and calories are still tied to increased risk of obesity and numerous other health consequences. Neither skim nor whole milk is a secret elixir; your overall diet is still more important than any specific food element.

What about organic milk vs. conventional milk?

Organic seems to be the newest trend sweeping food and drink shelves everywhere, but what does it actually mean? The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Program (NOP), which qualifies products as organic. For dairy, these qualifications include only feeding cows organic feed and regulations around the treatment of the animals. The NOP does not outline nutrition standards that milk must meet to be considered organic. Conventional milk is the name for the milk produced with regular farming practices, not under organic standards. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tightly regulates conventional milk production.

So, is one healthier than the other?

Organic milk is marketed in such a way that it is assumed be more nutritious, when in fact this isn’t proven. Do some investigation yourself! Compare the nutrition facts panel on organic milk to conventional side by side at the store. You will see that fat, calories, protein, and calcium are virtually the same. Though some research has found small differences in nutrition of organic milk vs. conventional, overall they still seem to be about equal.

What the cow eats plays a larger role in the nutrition quality of the milk rather than if it is organic or conventional, according to a 2015 review of 200 previous studies on the topic. Grass-fed cows seemed to produce milk with higher nutrient content, but other factors also had an effect, including climate, geography, cattle breed, and age of the cow.

“In very good comprehensive detail . . . the paper says there is no conclusive study out there that demonstrates a [nutritional] difference in organically and non-organically produced milk,” John Lucey, a dairy chemist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison tells Science 2.0. Lucey adds, “Although eating grass is a component of organic, you can be non-organic and still have your cattle eat a lot of grass.”

In other words, buying organic milk won’t necessarily mean better nutrition.

What about antibiotics?

Whether you drink organic or conventional milk, you are not gulping down antibiotics. It is true that cows producing organic milk are never given antibiotics. So, for example, if an organic cow gets an infection that can only be treated by antibiotics, this cow will leave the dairy—often transferred to a conventional farm to be treated. Conventional farmers use antibiotics for their cows if they become sick, similar to how we use antibiotics when we become sick. A cow on antibiotics has all her milk discarded. Before processing, farmers also test all milk to ensure there is no antibiotic residue, and if for some reason there is, all of the milk is rejected.

And hormones?

All milk (organic and conventional) has naturally occurring hormones. Some (but not all) conventional farmers use artificial growth hormones (including rBST and rBGH) to increase the amount of milk a cow produces. While these hormones are not allowed in organic dairy, the FDA does not deem them harmful to human health.

The bottom line here is the type of milk you buy is your choice, of course, but hopefully now you can make a more educated decision. Choose milk that aligns with your values, taste preferences, and health needs, and you will be just fine!

Next week, we’ll look at the serving size of cheese and how to make sure you’re sticking to the recommendations. Stay tuned to learn more!

Marissa Donovan

Marissa Donovan is a former upstate New York girl living in a cheese-centric world. Although cheese is her day one, she doesn’t discriminate, as she adores all food. Similar to what Beyoncé advises, she likes food so much she put a degree on it—she’s a registered dietitian and master’s student in the nutrition communication program at Tufts. When she’s not filling her head with food info, she’s filling her belly with food and, as always, trying to bring up cheese in casual conversation.