If you buy milk – at all – you’re used to seeing the fat percent labels. Whole, 2%, 1%, and skim. We all know that whole milk has the most fat and skim milk has no fat. But how much is “the most”? And what do 2% and 1% really mean?
How Much Fat Is In Milk?
We’re used to seeing fat in grams on other nutrition labels, so the percentage labeling that’s used on milk can be a little bit confusing.
Let’s say you have a jar with 100 ping pong balls inside. Ninety-eight of those ping pong balls are white and 2 are red. So 2% of your 100 ping pong balls are red.
Milk is like that jar of 98% white ping pong balls. Two percent milk just means that 2% of the milk is made up of fat. (So 98% of what is in that bottle is not fat.) When we’re used to looking at fat grams on a nutrition label, this percentage label doesn’t always make a lot of sense. So let’s talk a little more about fat percent, and what that means for the number of fat grams in the different types of milk.
Straight From the Cow
Not every cow is the same! Different breeds of cows make milk with different fat contents. And different cows of the same breed – even on the same farm – will make milk with different fat contents. And the same cow will make milk with a different fat content depending on how old she is and what stage of lactation she is in!
The first milk that cows make has the highest fat content. This milk is called colostrum. Colostrum is packed with antibodies and calories that calves need in the first day of life. Right after a cow gives birth, the colostrum is milked and fed to the calves; it does not become part of the human food supply.
After she makes colostrum, the fat content of a cow’s milk drops. Fat content is actually lowest around days 25-50 after calving. Then it starts to increase again, but it doesn’t reach its highest until around day 250 of lactation. At this point, the cow is making less total milk. When a cow makes less milk in a day, but the same amount of fat in a day, the milk will have a higher fat percent.
So how much fat are we talking about, straight from the cow? It depends on the breed, the farm, and the feeding program. What a cow eats directly affects how much milk she can make and how much fat it has. These are some averages for different breeds of dairy cows.
|Cow Breed||Percent Fat in Milk|
Data from the USDA Summary of 2014 Herd Averages.
Jersey cows tend to make milk with the highest fat content. But Holsteins tend to make the most milk. Dairy farms choose the breed of cows they have based on their goals. If they are selling their milk to make cheese, they might want cows that can make milk with a higher fat content. If they are selling their milk to be used as “fluid milk” (what you buy at the grocery store), they might want cows who make more milk overall, and not be so concerned about the fat content. Many dairies will have one “primary” breed of cow, but include a few cows from other breeds. This can have a small effect on average fat content of their milk from that dairy.
So now that we know that cows make milk with an average of 3.6-4.8% fat, what does that make whole milk? It turns out that whole milk isn’t actually “whole.” Some of the fat is removed to make whole milk have 3.25% fat. As you can see in the nutrition label above, this means that whole milk has 8 grams of fat in an 8-ounce serving.
You might expect the ingredients label on a container of whole milk to be pretty simple: milk. Most whole milk made in the United States has extra Vitamin D added to it (fortified).
This label is pretty simple. It’s 2% milk – so it has a 2% fat content. That means there are 5 grams of fat in one 8-ounce serving of milk. (That also means that 2% milk is 98% fat free!) Two percent milk is often called reduced fat milk. In order to use the label “reduced fat,” a food must have 25% less fat than the “reference food” (in this case, whole milk). Whole milk has 8 grams of fat per serving, and 2% milk has 5 grams of fat per serving. That’s 37.5% less fat in the 2% milk, which means that it can be called “reduced fat.”
The ingredient list for 2% milk includes reduced fat milk, Vitamin A, and Vitamin D. When fat is removed from milk, Vitamin A is also lost. (Vitamin A binds to fat.) Dairy processors add back Vitamin A at a level of 1200-2000 International Units per quart of milk. This brings the amount of Vitamin A back up to 6-10% of your recommended Daily Value. (Whole milk has 6% of your recommended Daily Value of Vitamin A.)
Following the trend here – 1% milk has a 1% fat content. That means that 1% milk is 99% fat free! There are 2.5 grams of fat in one 8-ounce serving. One percent milk is also called low fat milk. In order to be “low fat,” a food must have 3 grams or less of fat per serving. At 2.5 grams of fat per serving, 1% milk fits that criteria.
The ingredient list for 1% milk includes: low fat milk, Vitamin A, and Vitamin D. Just like with 2% milk, when fat is removed from milk Vitamin A is also lost. Dairy processors add this vitamin back to milk (fortified).
This container of skim milk has a big “0%” label. Skim milk is fat free milk. A fat free food can have up to 0.5 grams of fat per serving. Fat free milk has 0 grams of fat in an 8-ounce serving.
You are used to seeing this by now: the ingredients list for skim milk includes fat free milk, Vitamin A, and Vitamin D. When all the fat is taken out of milk, the fat-soluble Vitamin A is also lost. Dairy processors add Vitamin A back to maintain a 6-10% recommended Daily Value of Vitamin A.
Here’s your cheat sheet:
|Type of Milk||Percent Fat||Grams Fat|
|Whole milk||3.25%||8 grams|
|Reduced fat milk||2%||5 grams|
|Low fat milk||1%||2.5 grams|
|Fat free (skim) milk||0%||0 grams|
Other Nutrients in Milk
No matter the fat content in the milk you choose, the amounts of the rest of the nutrients are exactly the same.
Milk contains 30% of your recommended Daily Value of calcium. Milk that has been fortified with Vitamin D (like most milk made in the United States) has 25% of your recommended Daily Value of Vitamin D. Not many other foods contain calcium and Vitamin D, so milk is a very important source of these nutrients.
Milk also has 20% of your recommended Daily Value of riboflavin (Vitamin B2), 20% of your recommended Daily Value of phosphorus (important for strong bones), and 16% of your recommended Daily Value of protein (8 grams in an 8-ounce serving).
Milk has at least 10% of your daily value of niacin (important for enzyme function and metabolism), Vitamin B12 (important for red blood cells), and potassium (important for muscle activity and to maintain blood pressure). Whole milk typically has 6% of your recommended Daily Value of Vitamin A, while other types of milk have 10% (because they are fortified with Vitamin A).
It doesn’t matter if you choose your milk because of the way it tastes or because of a nutritional choice. All cow’s milk packs a huge nutritional punch!