There are more kinds of milk out there than ever—soy, almond, coconut. But just as dizzying is the array of choices for plain old cow's milk. Our milk primer, covering organic milk, omega-3-fortified milk, UHT milk, and more, can help.
If you can afford the extra $1 or so per half-gallon, yes, says Maxine Siegel, R.D., Consumer Reports' food-testing manager. Department of Agriculture rules require organic dairy farms to use 100 percent organic feed, no growth hormones, and no antibiotics. Buying organic also supports healthy agricultural practices. Organic milk from grass-fed cows costs a little more but has slightly more CLA and omega-3 fatty acids. (Read more about organic food.)
More than you think. Eight ounces of 2 percent (reduced-fat) milk has 122 calories and 5 fat grams, 3 saturated; 1 percent (low-fat) has 102 calories and 2 grams of fat, mostly saturated. Nonfat (skim) milk is the skinniest: 83 calories and almost 0 grams of fat. Plus, it actually has slightly more calcium than whole milk. And getting enough calcium, especially from food, is important for bone health.
Whole milk does have conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may protect against cancer and heart disease—but probably is not enough to cancel out its 4.5 grams of saturated fat. (And yes, saturated fat is still bad for you.) Someone on a 2,000-calorie diet should get less than 13 grams. "If you drink a few glasses per day, it's tough to keep your saturated-fat intake at that level," says Siegel.
Milk fortified with omega-3 fatty acids has 32 to 50 milligrams of the good fat per glass—a fraction of the 500 milligrams per day suggested for heart health. Plus the omegas are added in the form of flavorless fish oil or algae oil, so it's like swallowing a mini-supplement with your milk. That's not ideal. Research suggests that omega-3 supplements may not be as effective as the real thing. It's better to have two servings of fatty fish per week, Siegel notes. (See our advice on how to incorporate more healthy fish into your diet.)
That stands for for ultra-high-temperature processing. Milk processed that way has been heated to at least 275 degrees (F) for one to two seconds. That kills even more than the 99.9 percent of bacteria destroyed by high-temperature, short-time (HTST) pasteurization, which is used for conventional most milk. UHT helps milk last more than a month—six months for shelf-stable boxes. (The cartons are sterile and keep out oxygen and light.) UHT changes milk proteins, giving milk a "cooked" flavor, and can slightly reduce B vitamin levels.
Manufacters can make "fat-free" cream either by adding milk solids or filtering to remove water and some of the milk sugar. Eight ounces of such products have about 40 more calories, 3 extra protein grams, and 100 milligrams more calcium than regular skim but the same amount of fat.
Milk has about 300 milligrams of calcium per cup, a little less than a third of the amount you need daily. But some people have problems with milk. Here's how to get your calcium:
Sip lactose-free milk instead. It's treated with lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose (milk sugar), so it doesn't cause gas and diarrhea. Or try yogurt. It has very little lactose and is usually well tolerated.
Meeting your calcium needs without it is hard, but possible. For example, to get 1,000 milligrams, you'd have to eat a cup of frozen, cooked spinach (292 milligrams); a cup of frozen, cooked collard greens (356 milligrams); 3 ounces of canned salmon with the soft little bones (181 milligrams); and a cup of white beans (192 milligrams) every day.
Add up the calcium in your diet, and use supplements only to reach your recommended daily intake. More calcium isn't better and may raise heart-disease risk without providing extra bone benefits.
This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.