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?

While investigating major supermarkets in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, CHOICE found more than 80 different brands and types of milk – an amazing number considering that milk production is dominated by just two big multinationals, Parmalat (owned by French company Lactalis) and National Foods/Dairy Farmers (a subsidiary of Lion, owned by Japanese brewing giant Kiri). That doesn’t include products such as flavoured milk, goat's milk or soy milk.

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

Dominant dairy

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 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.

What else do I need to know about choosing the right milk?

Some of the most common assumptions about milk in all its forms are clouded by unanswered questions, often thanks to excessive marketing spin. Of course there are plenty of valid claims as well, so it's important to know which statements are sweet and which are sour.

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 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 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.

Permeate paranoia

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.

Milk production in Australia

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 not using chemical fertilisers) but has additional requirements for enhancing the soil's structure and nutrient cycles.