How Well Do You Know Milk?

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It’s National Dairy Month and while dairy products are a staple for many people, dairy milk has become polarizing among some shoppers. Whether you’re a fan of dairy or not, knowing basic facts about milk and dairy products is important if you want to make informed choices. Here are answers to three questions we often get about milk.

I’ve heard regular milk has a lot of antibiotics and hormones so I should buy organic milk, right?  

All animals and plants contain hormones. All milk contains low levels of hormones from the cow that produced it (including growth hormone). The issue, then, really becomes one of added hormones. Milk labeled as “organic” means that the cows it came from never received added hormones of any kind, nor were they treated with antibiotics. That said, it’s important to realize that there are tight regulations and testing in place for antibiotics in all milks (organic or not). If found, that milk is disposed of. As far as added hormones, you can easily find regular (non-organic) brands of milk that don’t have added hormones—just look for that statement on the milk carton.

Bottom line:  if you are concerned about either of these issues, you have a few different choices:

  1. Look for brands of milk that indicate the producers of the product do not add hormones (remember, all milk is tested for antibiotics regardless)
  2. Opt for a plant-based milk, realizing that nutrient levels will typically not be as high as they are in dairy milks. Use Guiding Stars to find nutritious options.
  3. Purchase organic milk. It’s a matter of your priorities and what you can afford, as regular milk is usually the most economical.

Is milk included in Guiding Stars’ new beverage guidance?

Although fluid milk is indeed a beverage, dairy products have always been evaluated using the algorithm for meat, poultry, seafood and nuts. This is because the nutritional qualities of dairy products are more closely aligned with those foods—they’re higher in protein and fat than most beverages. The main intent of the beverage algorithm was to evaluate beverages whose primary function was hydration, and that is not milk’s main role in the diet. Nut-based milk alternatives such as almond milk or cashew milk are also evaluated using the meat algorithm. However, those that are not nut/seed based (such as coconut or oat milk) are evaluated in the general foods algorithm because they are more similar to their source ingredients than they are to other beverages. 

Bottom line: No matter which algorithm Guiding Stars uses to evaluated a food or beverage product, the same nutrition guidance icons are displayed to identify options with good (1 star), better (2 stars), and best (3 stars) nutritional value.

How do the different percentages of fat in dairy milk impact Guiding Stars ratings?

Milk types—skim, (0%), 1%, 2%, and whole (3.25%)—are designated according to the total amount of fat in the milk by weight. Milk fat is primarily comprised of saturated fat, which can contribute to heart disease risk. However, milk consumed in its fat-free or low-fat forms provide very little saturated fat. Fat-free and low-fat milk also provide nutrients (at comparable levels to higher fat varieties) that are vital for health and maintenance of your body. These nutrients include calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein.

Bottom line: Guiding Stars ratings for milk align with current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations (for children over the age of 2 and adults) to move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk (or lactose-free dairy or fortified soy versions).

Search Guiding Stars ratings for different milks using our Food Finder.