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How to buy the best milk

We break down dairy industry marketing claims and find some should be put out to pasture.

glass of milk being poured
Last updated: 27 April 2017

Confused by all the different types of milk at the supermarket? 

It's no longer simply a matter of reaching for full cream, light or skim milk; nowadays you have to navigate labels claiming everything from high calcium to low saturated fat, and from added omega-3 to A2 proteins – not to mention the growing organic milk market. 

They all cost more than the generic brands of regular or low-fat milk, but are they worth the extra money? And which milk offers the best premium for Aussie dairy farmers?

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Milk prices

In May 2017 Australia's biggest dairy producer, Murray Goulburn, and the world's largest dairy exporter, New Zealand-owned Fonterra, announced they were cutting the milk prices being paid to Australian dairy farmers by about 15% – just two months before the end of the financial year. 

Where farm gate prices traditionally are set conservatively low, and rise as the season progresses with step ups paid to farmers as the budget is refined based on actual sales, dairy farmers that supply these companies are now facing the prospect of retrospectively paying back 10 months of "overpaid" milk. 

How you can help dairy farmers

Being one of the world's largest exporters of milk, Australian milk prices are heavily influenced by the global market. Global dairy prices have fallen around 60% since early 2014, but the severity and unexpected nature of the recent slashes to milk prices were unprecedented. The ACCC is now investigating Murray Goulburn and Fonterra over their cuts to the milk price paid to farmers, specifically the timing and notice of the cuts. 

Many consumers are eager to show their support for dairy farmers, and buy milk that's going to ensure farmers receive a better premium. So is changing from buying supermarket private label milk to buying branded milk the answer? Unfortunately it's not that simple.

$2 milk – to buy or not to buy?

According to Dairy Australia, the national service body of the dairy industry, there are about 6100 dairy farmers in Australia. Roughly 2600 supply Murray Goulburn and 1200 supply Fonterra - about 60% of all dairy farmers in total. The majority of milk supplied to those companies comes from dairy farms in the southern states, particularly Victoria and Tasmania.  Somewhere between 6-10% of milk supplied to Murray Goulburn and Fonterra goes into domestic fresh milk (for drinking milk – both supermarket private label and branded milks - and products like butter and cheese). The rest is exported, mainly in the form of commodity products like milk powder and cheese.

It's a different and much smaller industry in the northern states such as Western Australia and Queensland, where very few farmers supply to Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, and most of the fresh milk produced is sold to the domestic market as drinking milk or butter and cheese.

The payment structure for milk is also very complex. Farmers are paid per kilogram of milk solids – the fat and protein – they produce. The protein component is worth more than the fat, but the composition of milk – the fat:protein ratio – can vary depending on breed of cow, seasonality and geography, among other things.  On top of the base price, there are also seasonal prices – winter incentives, for example. Additionally, milk that's used for fresh milk (and its products like butter or cheese) attracts a marginally higher premium than the milk being used for commodity products like milk powder. 

How consumers can make a difference

In the Australian drinking milk market the two major players are multinationals, Japanese-owned Lion (with the Pura and Dairy Farmers brands) and French-owned Parmalat (with the Pauls brand). Murray Goulburn and Fonterra also have a strong presence in the milk market, with contracts for the supply of supermarket private label milks. But with the majority of dairy farmers supplying to Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, and the bulk of these companies' operations being focused on milk commodities for export, fresh drinking milk is a very small part of the picture for most dairy farmers.

So while the sentiment behind consumers switching to branded drinking milk to support dairy farmers might be appreciated, this action won't automatically result in farmers receiving higher premiums, although it may help them indirectly. According to Dairy Australia spokesperson, "Branded milk puts more money into the supply chain. That gives the option for processors to pay marginally more to farmers."

To support Australian dairy farmers, you can do the following:

  • Buy through farmers markets and other initiatives that allow consumers to bypass the middlemen, meaning a greater share for the producers.
  • Buy milk produced at a dairy that processes its own product. Some smaller brands actually process their milk on the farm it comes from, and depending on where you are in the country, you can find them in the major supermarkets.
  • Buy products made by a small-scale farmer-controlled cooperative. With farmers as shareholders, they not only get paid at the farm gate, but if the business succeeds they also get paid a dividend.
  • Buy Australian dairy products (those produced in Australia) irrespective of brand - this includes cheese and yoghurt. Not everyone has room in the budget to buy organic milk from a local family-owned dairy. Do what you can and don't feel guilty about buying private label milk. Every little bit counts.

Milk types

The main types of milk are:

  • full cream – makes up nearly half of all fresh milk sales. To qualify it needs to contain at least 3.2% fat, as specified by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Most brands contain about 3.4% fat and 3.3% protein.
  • light/low-fat – the second-biggest category. To qualify for the description, milk should contain no more than 1.5% fat, with most brands containing 1.3% to 1.4%. This milk often has skim milk powder added to it, which makes it taste creamier and also boosts the calcium content.
  • skim – can be labelled "fat-free" if it contains less than 0.15% fat, and most brands of skim contain about 0.1%. Again, most brands contain extra skim milk powder which makes the milk taste creamier and gives it extra protein and calcium.

Milk marketing

These days the dairy industry is overflowing with marketing spiel, but what does it all mean? Is there any credibility to their claims?

Calcium, vitamin D and bones

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 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 100mg of calcium or more per 100mL. And most dairy milks fit the bill. Regular full-cream milk contains around 115mg per 100mL. Skim or low-fat milks often contain even more. But only some milk products have a calcium claim on the label – and they're not necessarily the ones with the most calcium.

Some boast the added benefit of dietary vitamin D, but for most people it's an unnecessary extra, as 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, two to three times a 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.

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 100mg per 100mL is a bonus. 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

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. Some milks have omega-3s added, while others simply make 'source of omega-3s' claims, but the amount they contain varies hugely, so check the label to see what contribution they make to your diet. The suggested dietary target for omega-3s is 610 mg/day for men and 430 mg/day for women.

A serve of fish is a much better source of omega-3 – there's more than 340mg in 40g of tinned tuna, for example, and even more in salmon or sardines. But if you're not keen on seafood, milk that's claimed to be good for your heart could make a real contribution to your daily needs.


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. Brands that claim to offer easier digestion may have had the lactose removed, which benefits those who are lactose intolerance.

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.

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, but you'll need to get used to the taste.

A2 milk

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 Milk Company (previously A2 Corporation) was set up to produce milk from cows that mainly produce A2 beta-casein proteins.

The science behind this claim is that beta-casein, the protein that makes up about 80% of the protein in milk, has two forms, A1 and A2, and milk normally contains a mixture of the two forms, which is true. And the peptide BCM7 can be released from A1 protein during digestion or food processing, also true. But what of suggestions that A2 milk provides levels of protection from autism in children, as well as schizophrenia, diabetes and heart disease?

In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority reviewed the science and found no justification for claims about the health risks from BCM7. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is similarly sceptical about the evidence for the claims for A2 milk. 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.

Milk permeate

You may have noticed a "permeate free" claim showing up on your carton of milk. So what is permeate, and should you be avoiding it?

The composition of milk can vary throughout the year as a result of regional and seasonal factors and breed of cow. According to the industry, most dairy manufacturers standardise the fat and protein levels of the milk collected to meet consumers' expectations of a product with consistent composition and taste all year round. One way of doing this is to add or remove fat. Another is to add permeate, which also makes milk less costly to produce.

Permeate is derived through ultra-filtration, a process used by many manufacturers to separate various components of milk – protein, lactose, vitamins and minerals. Permeate is the technical term for the lactose, vitamin and mineral components, and is sometimes regarded as waste as it is discarded in the production of cheese.

The Food Standards Code allows manufacturers to add or withdraw "milk components" to or from milk as long as the total fat level remains at least 3.2% (for full-cream milk) and the protein at least 3% (for any milk).

Manufacturers aren't required to list permeate on the ingredients list. Permeate-free labelling appears to be a marketing move in response to concerns from some consumers about its use in milk, but there's no evidence to suggest you should avoid it for nutritional or safety reasons.

Organic milk

Organic milk is almost always more expensive than its non-organic equivalent, but in this case it, like other organic foods, costs more because production costs are greater. It's produced without the use of pesticides and with higher standards of animal welfare than conventionally produced milk. Many brands are produced by smaller independent dairies with only local distribution, so the milk is less likely to have been transported across vast distances.

Raw milk, unpasteurised milk and unhomogenised milk

Sale of "raw" milk for human consumption is illegal in Australia. The Food Standards Code requires that milk is pasteurised or "equivalently processed" to ensure its safety for human consumption. There are provisions for states and territories to regulate and permit the sale of raw drinking milk, though currently no states have legislated to allow for raw cow milk to be sold (the sale of raw goat milk is permitted in NSW, WA, SA and Qld).

However, unpasteurised, unhomogenised milk is now available to buy in NSW, labelled as "cold-pressed raw milk". Rather than pasteurisation, which involves treatment with heat, the "cold-pressed" milk undergoes high pressure processing (HPP) to eliminate pathogens and extend shelf life.

The coffee myth

Some baristas would have you believe that cheaper milks – like the supermarket brand products – will give you a poorer quality coffee as the milk doesn't froth as well. They say the lower fat content of supermarket brand milks is responsible. But our analysis says otherwise.

To confirm our findings, we asked our resident coffee expert and coffee machine tester for his opinion. He said there is some variability in milk according to season, but regardless of whether it's home brand or premium you should be able to get a good foam – so rest assured, your morning cappuccino is safe. He steamed the supermarket brand variety for us and we couldn't tell the difference.

Industry issues

Cream skimming

Manufacturers often strip milk of some of its cream, yet still sell it as full-cream. Most full-cream milk we found contained only 3.3%–3.4% fat, whereas milk straight from the cow contains about 4%. Manufacturers use the cream they've extracted to make other dairy products, such as dairy desserts and butter.

You can still find milk with fat above 4%, but it's more expensive and is often organic. You can also find milk that hasn't been homogenised, but these brands are produced by smaller dairy companies with limited distribution and may not be available in your area.

Animal welfare: benefits for the bovines

Milk production is now much more efficient and mechanised. The number of dairy farms has more than halved in the past 25 years and the average herd size has gone up from 85 cows in 1980 to 215 in 2008. In the same period, the average amount of milk produced per cow per year has gone up from 2848L to 5231L, while the most recent report shows an increase to 5525L in 2013. This increased productivity has been achieved by selective breeding and supplementing the cows' feed. But according to the RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations, the huge scale of milk production has given rise to some animal welfare issues.

To produce milk, a cow must have a calf every year and most of these bobby calves are slaughtered. Current regulations allow for them to be transported on trucks for 18 hours straight, and there's no requirement for them to be fed for 30 hours. Calves that are kept have their horns or the horn buds removed without anaesthetic or pain relief. Although on the decrease, some farmers still routinely dock the tails of their dairy cows, again without anaesthetic or pain relief. Lameness can be a painful condition for many dairy cows that stand for long periods on the concrete floors of milking sheds.

 Jargon buster

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.
  • Homogenised: Practically all milk in Australia shops 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. It's 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 requiring that any fertilisers used are based on biodegradable material of microbial, plant or animal origin produced from organic practices) but has additional requirements for enhancing the soil's structure and nutrient cycles.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.