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Publication #FSHN11-09

Shopping for Health: Milk1

Wendy J. Dahl and Lauren Foster2

Why is milk important for health?

Milk provides a variety of essential nutrients that your body needs to maintain good health. These nutrients include calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and potassium. Milk also contains high quality protein that helps meet your body's needs (1).

Health Benefits

A diet with the recommended servings of milk and milk products will help build and maintain bone (1). This is especially beneficial during childhood and adolescence when the majority of bone mass is made. In addition, milk may help control blood pressure because of its potassium and calcium content.

Shopping for Milk

Figure 1. 



Liz West, used here under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Shopping for milk may seem overwhelming due to the wide variety of milk products in the market. You may find that some types of milk meet your needs better than others based on your specific health conditions or preferences.

Fat Content of Milk

Consuming a diet high in saturated fat may lead to high blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. By choosing low-fat or skim milk, you can receive the nutritional benefits of milk without the excess calories and saturated fat. Table 1 shows the amount of fat in different types of cow's milk. If you prefer the flavor of whole milk to skim milk, try slowly transitioning to lower fat versions. This may allow you to grow accustomed to the different taste and decrease your daily fat intake.

Table 1. 

Fat content of cow's milk.

Milk Type

Fat (g / 8 oz. glass)

Whole milk


Reduced-fat (2%) milk


Low-fat (1%) milk


Skim Milk


g = gram(s)

oz = ounce

Animal Milks

Lactose-Free Milk

Some people lack the enzyme needed to digest the milk sugar, lactose. These people may have unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms after drinking milk. This is known as lactose intolerance. Many people that are unable to digest lactose may be able to consume small amounts of lactose without troubling side effects.

Lactase enzyme may be added to regular milk to predigest the lactose, preventing possibility of gastrointestinal side effects in those with lactose intolerance. Some brands, such as Lactaid®, offer milk products with this enzyme added. Since the lactose in this kind of milk is broken down into smaller sugars, the milk may taste sweeter.

Raw Milk

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization is a heating procedure used to kill harmful bacteria in dairy products. Raw and pasteurized milk contain the same nutrients, but the bacteria in raw milk may cause a variety of foodborne illnesses (1). This is especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems.

Organic Milk

Milk may be labeled as organic if the animal is not treated with hormones or medications, is fed only organic feed, and is allowed enough grazing time. If milk is produced according to standards set by the USDA National Organic Program, it will carry the seal shown here (2):

Figure 2. 

When you see the USDA Organic Seal, you know the product is at least 95 percent organic and it has been produced and processed in accordance with the USDA's National Organic Program standards.



[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Organic milk has the same nutrient content as regular milk, and production must comply with the same safety standards. There are no known health benefits of drinking organic milk over non-organic milk, but some consumers choose organic milk to avoid consuming growth hormones.

Goat's Milk

Although less popular in the United States, goat's milk is used as an alternative to cow's milk in many countries.

Some research has shown that goat's milk may be beneficial for people with an allergy to cow's milk because it contains different proteins than cow's milk. Other studies, however, have shown that goat's milk is also highly allergenic and is not a good substitute for most people with a known allergy to cow's milk (3).

Like cow's milk, goat's milk contains the sugar lactose, and may cause digestive upset in people with lactose intolerance.

Goat's milk has a slightly higher fat content than whole cow's milk, with about 10 g of fat per 8 oz glass. If you are looking to lower your fat intake, goat's milk is not a good choice.

Plant-Based Milks

Soy Milk

Rather than using animal products, soy milk is made from soybeans. It may be a healthy alternative to cow's milk for many people. Soy milk contains about the same amount of protein as cow's milk, but the protein quality is a bit lower than that of cow's milk.

Soy milk is safe for people with an allergy to cow's milk because it lacks the protein casein, which is responsible for many allergic reactions (4). Soy milk is also lactose-free and is a good source of protein and calcium for people with lactose intolerance.

Soy milk has no cholesterol and less saturated fat than cow's milk. Soy protein may help decrease blood cholesterol and reduce your risk for heart disease (5).

Rice Milk

Rice milk, another plant-based milk substitute, is made from rice grains. Like soy milk, it is safe for people with a cow's milk allergy and will not cause gastrointestinal symptoms in those with lactose intolerance.

If you drink rice milk as a replacement for cow's milk in your diet, you should be aware that it has a very different nutrient content. With only 2.5 g of fat per cup, rice milk may be a good choice for people looking to decrease their fat intake. However, rice milk is not recommended for infants or young children due to its low protein content (6). While normal cow's milk has about 8 grams of protein per cup, rice milk has less than 1 gram per cup.

Almond Milk

The most recent plant-based milk substitute to enter the marketplace is almond milk. Almond milk is a safe alternative for those with cow’s milk allergy and has no lactose so is well tolerated by those with lactose intolerance. As with rice milk, almond milk is a low fat choice, containing only 2.5 g of fat per cup. However, due to its low protein content at 1 g per cup, almond milk is not recommended as a milk replacement for infants or young children.

Chocolate Milk

Most milk and milk substitutes come in a chocolate-flavored variety. Chocolate milk generally has more calories and sugar than the plain alternative, but still provides the same essential nutrients and health benefits. Drinking low-fat chocolate milk in appropriate amounts may be a healthy option for children who might otherwise not drink milk.

Be an Informed Shopper

Consuming milk and milk products can provide many long-term health benefits, but you should know the facts before you shop. Not all types of milk provide the same nutrients.

Learn More

Contact the Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) agent at your local UF/IFAS Extension office for more information and ask about nutrition classes for you to attend. Also, you can receive reliable information from a registered dietitian (RD). If you have concerns about your specific health condition, you should speak to your doctor.


(1) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Food and Drug Administration. The dangers of raw milk: Unpasteurized milk can pose a serious health risk. 03 May 2010. Web.

(2) U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service. National Organic Program. Placement of Organic Seal on product. 05 Feb 2010. Web.

(3) Bellioni-Businco B, Paganelli R, Lucenti P, Giampietro P, Perborn H. 1999. Allergenicity of goat's milk in children with cow's milk allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 103(6).

(4) Businco L, Bruno G, Giampietro P. 1998. Soy protein for the prevention and treatment of children with cow-milk allergy. Am J Clin Nutr. 68: 1447S–1452S.

(5) Anderson J, Johnstone B, Cook-Newell M. 1995. Meta-analysis of the effects of soy protein intake on serum lipids. Circulation 333(5): 276–282.

(6) Massa G, Vanoppen A, Gillis P, Aerssens P, Alliet P, Raes M. 2001. Protein malnutrition due to replacement of milk by rice drink. Eur J Pediatr 160(6): 382–384.



This document is FSHN11-09, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date June 2011. Revised November 2014. Reviewed June 2016. Visit the EDIS website at


Wendy J. Dahl, Ph.D., assistant professor; and Lauren Foster, B.S.; Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication do not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.