Milk

The choice of milk seems endless. But what's the difference?
 
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  • Updated:28 May 2007
 

01 .Milk claims

Milk

Fat

Ever wondered what the difference is between full or reduced fat?

  • Regular ‘milk’ (defined in the Food Standards Code as the mammary secretion of milking animals — essentially, cows and goats) has a minimum of 3.2 g fat per 100 mL. It’s often labelled as ‘full-cream’ or ‘whole’ milk.
  • Low-fat milk contains no more than 1.5 g fat per 100 mL. It’s often labelled as ‘light’ or ‘lite’.
  • Skim milk is milk with almost all the fat removed. It contains no more than 0.15 g fat. Skim milks are often labelled as ‘no fat’, and frequently have names like ‘Physical’, ‘Tone’, ‘Shape’ or ‘Skinny’, presumably to further appeal to the figure-conscious.

See our latest artilce on Milk products compared.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2007 but is still a useful guide today.


Calcium, vitamin D and bones

The selling point

‘Calcium rich’, ‘high in calcium’ or ‘good source of calcium’ are common claims on milk labels, as are statements about bone health, including:

  • “To help achieve optimal bone maintenance, Anlene contains essential bone nutrients, and it helps you absorb them effectively.” ANLENE
  • ”Stronger bones.” PAULS PhysiCAL
  • “A daily 250 mL glass of nutrient enriched Pura Boost is a fantastic bone health package.” PURA Boost

The reality

We all know that calcium is important for building and maintaining healthy bones, and there’s no doubt that milk’s an important source. According to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, a claim that a product is a good source of calcium can be made if it contains no less than 25% of the recommended dietary intake (RDI) in a specified quantity — for milk, that’s the equivalent of 100 mg of calcium or more per 100 mL. And most dairy milks fit the bill. Regular full-cream milk contains around 115 mg per 100 mL. Skim or low-fat milks often contain even more. But only some milks have a calcium claim on the label — and they’re not necessarily the ones with the most calcium.

ANLENE, PAULS PhysiCAL and PURA Boost contain more calcium than others. But what really differentiates them from other milks is that they contain added vitamin D — a nutrient that assists the absorption of dietary calcium. One cup (250 mL) of ANLENE or four cups of PAULS PhysiCAL or PURA Boost is enough to meet your daily vitamin D requirements if you’re aged 50 and under. You’d need 40 cups of regular milk to get the same amount.

But for most people, dietary vitamin D is unnecessary — you can get enough through exposure to sunlight (it’s produced by the action of sunlight on skin). As you get older, you need more vitamin D (and calcium) for healthy bones. But it’s estimated that even then, exposure of just your face, hands and forearms to sunlight for 15–30 minutes, 2–3 times per week, will provide enough. It’s primarily people who have very restricted sun exposure — older people in residential care, dark-skinned people and women who wear veils, for example — who may need to boost their vitamin D levels through diet.

The verdict

If you’re trying to get more calcium (a higher intake is recommended for adolescents and older people, particularly postmenopausal women, for example), don’t be influenced by the words on the label. Check the nutrition information panel — any more calcium than 100 mg per 100 mL is a bonus. And for adolescents and postmenopausal women in particular, the extra calcium in milks like ANLENE and PURA Boost is a plus. But unless you’re at risk of vitamin D deficiency, there’s really no need to buy milk just because its label mentions bone health, especially if it costs more.

Heart and cholesterol

The selling point

BROWNES Heart Plus and DAIRY FARMERS Farmers Best Source of Omega 3 both have omega-3 added. PURA Heart Active claims to lower your cholesterol.

The reality

Omega-3s are derived either from plants (mainly ALA omega-3s) or from fish (mainly EPA and DHA). ALA may help to prevent heart disease, but the evidence for omega-3s from fish is far better. Expert opinions vary, but typical recommendations are 300–500 mg per day of EPA/DHA. A cup of BROWNES Heart Plus will give you 150 mg of EPA/DHA, roughly half your day’s quota. But the amount in the DAIRY FARMERS milk is small by comparison — you’d need to drink 4.5 cups to get the equivalent. Some soy milks also flag their omega-3 content, but of course it’s the plant-derived version, not EPA or DHA, that they contain (see Non-dairy milk alternatives).

PURA Heart Active contains natural plant sterols, which it says “can lower your cholesterol by up to 15%”. The scientific evidence is quite strong that plant sterols work and the Heart Foundation advises that a daily intake of 2–3 g of plant sterols reduces bad (LDL) cholesterol levels by approximately 10%. You’d get this amount in three cups of PURA Heart Active.

The verdict

A serve of fish is a much better source of omega-3 — there’s over 340 mg in 40 g of tinned tuna, for example, and even more in salmon or sardines. But if you’re not keen on seafood, BROWNES Heart Plus in particular can make a real contribution to your daily needs. And while not a substitute for cholesterol-lowering medication, PURA Heart Active can be beneficial so long as you’re prepared to have several cups a day.

Digestion

The selling point

PARMALAT Zymil and PAULS Goat Milk both claim to be easier to digest.

The reality

Lactose is the major sugar in milk. If you don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase — which breaks down lactose so that it can be absorbed by your body — you might experience symptoms like stomach cramps, bloating, wind and diarrhoea when you drink milk. PARMALAT Zymil is cow’s milk that’s had the lactose removed, making it easier to digest if you’re lactose-intolerant.

Goat’s milk still contains lactose, but the major difference between it and cow’s milk is that the fat globules in goat’s milk are much smaller, and it lacks the substance called agglutinin, which causes the globules to cluster together in cow’s milk (if it’s not homogenised). It’s been said that this may be why some people find goat’s milk easier to digest than regular cow’s milk, but the only evidence we could find for this was anecdotal.

The verdict

If you have trouble digesting milk you could be lactose-intolerant, and lactose-free milk might help (although you should see a doctor for advice). If lactose isn’t your problem you could try goat’s milk, although you’ll need to get used to the taste.

A2 milk

The selling point

“A2 Milk is a pure natural milk with an important difference, it is rich in A2 beta casein protein.” A2 Milk

The reality

The A2 milk debate has been rumbling along since the late 1990s. Back then, it was hypothesised that the A1 beta-casein protein found in the milk of some cows was a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and possibly also schizophrenia and autism. The A2 beta-casein protein, produced by other cattle breeds, wasn’t thought to be associated with these diseases. Milk produced in Australia and New Zealand is normally a mix of both. So the A2 Corporation was set up to produce milk from cows that mainly produce A2 beta-casein proteins.

In 2004, a report from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority looking into the claims found no convincing evidence to suggest that A1 milk is a health risk, although it suggested that more research was needed. A more recent independent review reached much the same conclusion. One of the many other misconceptions surrounding A2 milk is that it’s less likely to cause allergies than regular milk.

The verdict

With no substantial evidence to suggest that A2 milk is better for health than regular milk, you’re better off basing your buying on taste and price.

See our latest review of milk products.

 
 

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02.Non-dairy milk alternatives

 

If you follow a vegan diet or you’re allergic to cow’s milk — or just don’t like the taste of milk — there are several non-dairy milk alternatives you can use instead.

Soy ‘milk’

Soy beverage (or soy ‘milk’ as it’s commonly, if inaccurately, called) generally has less saturated fat than regular milk and it’s a good-quality protein. It also contains isoflavones (a class of phytoestrogens), which mimic the hormone oestrogen. Isoflavones have long been thought to ward off osteoporosis, relieve the symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flushes, and protect against heart disease (by lowering cholesterol) and some cancers, including breast cancer.

In reality, there’s no evidence that soy protein and isoflavones reduce the severity or frequency of hot flushes, and results are mixed with regard to soy’s ability to slow osteoporosis. The impact of isoflavones on cholesterol levels is very small relative to the large amount of soy protein you’d need to eat or drink to achieve it. And there’s little evidence that isoflavones can prevent or treat cancer.

Soy milk can still be beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health because of its high polyunsaturated fat content and low saturated fat content, among other things. Most soy milk is fortified with calcium too, to levels comparable with the dairy version. Just don’t buy it for the isoflavones alone.

Cereal- and nut-based drinks

There are plenty of interesting non-dairy milk alternatives available, to suit any taste — take your pick from rice, oat, almond or hazelnut drinks for starters. But they differ from dairy milks in significant ways. Cereal- and nut-based drinks contain significantly less protein than dairy or soy milk. And although manufacturers are allowed to add calcium and other vitamins and minerals to make them nutritionally more like dairy or soy drinks, not all of them do.

It’s for these reasons that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recently issued a warning to parents that cereal-based beverages, such as rice milk and oat-based drinks, aren’t a suitable substitute for milk for children under the age of five. These drinks are now required to carry a warning that says as much. If children are drinking cereal-based drinks due to an allergy or intolerance to dairy or soy milk, parents need to ensure they’re getting sufficient protein from other sources to make up for what they’re not getting from milk.

Use this quick reference to decipher words you might see on milk container labels.

  • ‘Milk drink’, ‘milk beverage’ Only specified vitamins and minerals can be added to milk under the Food Standards Code, and for some of these there’s a maximum permitted quantity. Milks with more than this, or with other additional vitamins and minerals, are labelled ‘milk drink’ or ‘milk beverage’ in order to comply with the code. Examples include ANLENE, PURA Boost and BROWNES Heart Plus.
  • Homogenised Practically all drinking milk in Australia has undergone homogenisation, a process where the milk fat globules are physically reduced in size, so they remain suspended throughout the milk for long periods of time. The process prevents the cream from separating out and gives the milk a more uniform colour. Unhomogenised milk will have a creamy layer on top where the fat globules have come together.
  • Pasteurised milk has been heat-treated to kill bugs and prevent spoilage. Its particularly important that milk produced on an industrial scale is pasteurised. Collecting and pooling milk from many different farms increases the risk that a given batch will be contaminated, and the plumbing and machinery needed for the various stages of processing also increase opportunities for contamination.
  • Long-life milk has been pasteurised using the ultra-high temperature (UHT) method. If packaged under strictly sterile conditions, it can be stored for months without refrigeration.
  • Organic milk comes from organically farmed animals fed a variety of foods natural to their diet, and allowed free movement and natural light and ventilation while inside.
  • Biodynamic You’ll see this on the label of milks sourced from farms that use the biodynamic farming method. Biodynamic farming shares principles with organic farming (such as not using chemical fertilisers) but has additional requirements for enhancing the soil’s structure and nutrient cycles.