The dairy section at the supermarket is a vast sea of choice: full cream, skim, reduced-fat, fortified with calcium – the list goes on. Dietitian Lisa Yates explains how to choose the best milk for you.
Why drink milk?
Milk is a powerhouse of essential nutrients: protein, calcium, low-GI carbohydrates, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, as well as vitamins A, D, B2 and B12. Adequate dairy intake from milk, yoghurt, cheese, custard and ice-cream adds up to strong bones and teeth, a healthy body weight and normal blood pressure.
Fresh vs UHT
Raw, pasteurised and homogenised milk
Raw milk is the ideal environment for bacteria to grow so all milk sold in Australia is pasteurised – heated to 72 degrees for 15 seconds to kill the bugs and then rapidly chilled. It will last 10–14 days in the fridge. Most milk is also homogenised, or passed through a small nozzle under high pressure to reduce the size of, and evenly distribute, fat particles.
UHT, evaporated, condensed or powdered milk
To preserve milk even longer, it can be heated to ultra high temperatures (UHT) – at least 132 degrees – for about 2–5 seconds and then cooled and packaged in tetra-paks. UHT milk will last at room temperature for months, and once opened must be refrigerated and consumed within seven days. Evaporated, condensed or powdered milk has had the water reduced or removed.
There is little nutritional difference between fresh, UHT or powdered milks. Buy the one you like best.
What to look for
Most milk choices are healthy. Look at the nutrition information panel to find the variety that best meets your dietary requirements.
Look for an overall energy level of no more than 250kJ per 100ml. This includes the energy from the fat, protein and carbohydrate in milk. Surprisingly some skim/no-fat milks have similar energy content to reduced-fat milk. When fat is removed protein and carbohydrate increase, creating the same overall energy content.
Look for a total fat content of less than 2g of total fat per 100ml, or 2%. Full-cream milk contains 3–5% fat, but it is mainly saturated fat – the kind that raises blood cholesterol. Reduced-fat milk has around 1–2% fat and skim/no-fat varieties have less than 1% fat. Avoid these as milk fat also contains the essential fat-soluble vitamins A and D.
Lactose, or milk sugar, is the naturally occurring carbohydrate in milk and has a low glycaemic index (GI <55). Lower-fat milks have a higher carbohydrate content and taste sweeter. If you are lactose-intolerant, try low-lactose fresh or UHT milks with added lactase, a special enzyme that breaks down lactose for easier digestion.
Choose a milk with a calcium content around 120mg per 100ml. If you can’t drink milk or are allergic to cow’s milk, try calcium-fortified soy, rice or oat beverages.
Additives in milk
Some milks have plant sterols or omega-3 fats added. Plant sterols reduce cholesterol re-absorption in the gut, so they can reduce blood cholesterol. In omega-3 milks, the saturated fat is replaced with the long-chain omega-3 fats like those found in fish. Omega-3s can improve heart health and reduce inflammation. While these milks do have added benefits, they are usually more expensive.
Price of milk
Compare milk prices by volume. Since milks come in 1L, 1.1L, 2L and 3L bottles, and 150ml, 250ml, 300ml, 600ml and 1L cartons or tetra-paks, it can be tricky. Home brand and UHT milk, whether full-fat, reduced-fat or skim, are cheaper than processed milks – at less than $2 per litre. The more additives and processing, the more expensive the milk.
How much, how often?
3–4 serves of reduced fat dairy each day. A 250ml glass of milk is one serve.
1–2 years: About 600ml of milk a day. Reduced-fat and skim milks are not suitable at this age.
3–10 years: 2–3 serves of dairy each day. Reduced-fat milk is advised for this age and older.
11 years and over: 4–5 serves of dairy each day. Again, reduced-fat varieties are recommended.
Research shows that children who drink milk instead of soft drinks are less likely to be overweight, and more likely to get all the nutrients they need.
Milk nutrients per 100ml
(in order of highest energy content to lowest per milk fat category)