Light Milk: Healthier than Full Cream?

There are so many milk options available these days that it can make finding the right choice a challenge. One problem that many people face is selecting between full cream milk and reduced fat milk (light/ skim) options. So that you can make an informed decision, it’s worthwhile taking into consideration the similarities and differences between them.

Both full and light milk provide a good source of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B, vitamin D and folate. In addition, milk protein has a high biological value, which means that the quality of the protein in milk is high (around 90%). Because of these qualities, dieticians and nutritionists recommend that milk is included in a balanced diet.

Why do people chose skim milk?

Full cream milk contains approximately four per cent fat, while light milk contains around one to two per cent. The choice to drink light milk is often prompted by a person’s decision to restrict their energy intake in order to lose or maintain weight; and studies have shown that the dietary intakes of people who drink light milk are lower in over all fat consumption, in comparison to drinkers of full cream milk.

Light milk options have also been recommended to reduce cholesterol. Because milk contains saturated fat (like other dairy products), which is associated with cholesterol, it is suggested to negatively impact health. Lighter milks have reduced saturated fat, and therefore are perceived as a better option for those concerned with clogging up their arteries.

Another benefit of light milk is related to calcium, which is high in milk and important for bone health. Calcium is indicated to be more efficiently absorbed from low fat dairy products because of the lower levels of saturated fats.

Light might – less fat – more sugar?

There has been growing concern over the use of added sugars in light milk to make up the flavour lost by reducing the fat content. If you are worried about this from the perspective of total energy intake, light milk (and skim milk more so) is much lower in total kilojoule content. Whilst the concern of increased sugar in light milks has been raised in places like the USA, I’m not a big believer that this is the case in Australia. Looking at one of the major producers of milk in Australia, light milk had 2.4% less fat (i.e. 2.4 g per 100 ml) and only a 0.2% increase in sugar in comparison to full cream milk. Skim milk had a 3.3% reduction in fat and 0.6% increase in sugar. Personally, the 0.2% increase in sugars does not concern me enough to defer me from the reduced fat given how much milk I like to drink! If you are particularly concerned, however, there are some special light milk options available that are lower in sugar than the generic products and so I’d suggest doing some research on the option that best suits your needs.

Issues with skim milk

Skim milk is at the extreme end of the light milk options and contains very little fat (e.g. less than half a per cent). Although this might seem like an awesome option for the health conscious, this skimming process may result in some of the nutrients being removed. This is because vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble vitamins. This means that their ability to dissolve in fat allows for their absorption in the body. As skim milk is very low in fat, there is reduced availability for the vitamins to dissolve. As a consequence, many skim milks are fortified to replace micronutrients such as vitamin A and D. However, according to the Dieticians Association of Australia, the fortification of milk products in Australia is optional – so it might be worthwhile checking the brand-label if you are concerned with your vitamin uptake.

Final word.. If you tend toward drinking a lot of milk, taking a low-fat option might be a better choice for your waistline. However, not everyone advocates the ‘low fat movement’ and there are times (e.g. for toddlers) when full cream milk may be the better option.