Which Milk is Best For You?

Yes, milk is a key part of healthy eating. But these days, the choices go way beyond skim or 1% to keep the calories down. Here's how to find the best half-gallon for you.

Some types of milk may fit your nutrition needs better than others.
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Got milk? Yes! About a kajillion different kinds, in fact, from organic to omega-3-fortified.

Though we're drinking less milk than 30 years ago—women down about 19 gallons per year, mostly in cereal—it's still an ideal way to get your calcium: One glass packs a quarter of the daily 1,000-milligram requirement (you should get 1,200 if you're 51 or older). Federal dietary guidelines suggest sticking to skim and low-fat milk to keep saturated fat levels down. OK, but how do you choose from there? We got the scoop on the new cartons in the dairy case.

Must-know info: This milk comes from cows raised organically, meaning they eat feed grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Some experts advocate for organic milk because they believe that the synthetic growth hormone given to many conventionally raised cattle may cause health problems, from early puberty to cancer. Still, a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found no significant difference in the level of hormones in organic and conventional milk. "I don't think there's enough conclusive evidence that shows organic milk is healthier or safer than conventional, and both are packed with key nutrients," says Elisa Zied, RD, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips.

Should you buy it? Sure, if eating (and drinking!) an organic diet is important to you. The jury's out on its nutritional perks, though. True—research has shown that organic milk can be higher than the regular kind in omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and conjugated linoleic acid (a type of fat that may help lower cholesterol levels and boost bone formation). But whether that's true of the white stuff in your glass depends on such factors as where the cows who provided that milk were grazing. Plus, skim and low-fat milks are low in all kinds of fats—including heart-healthy omega-3s.

Must-know info: Designed to keep dairy products fresh for longer, ultra-pasteurized milk is heated to a higher temperature than regular, pasteurized milk (280 degrees Fahrenheit versus the usual 161), says Cary P. Frye, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association. That means your milk can safely stay unopened in the fridge for up to 60 days (instead of 21). Organic milk is often ultra-pasteurized, since it typically travels greater distances to stores; some nonorganic brands also choose to pasteurize milk this way. When it's packaged in specially sterilized containers, then sealed to block light or air, you get shelf-stable milk (like Parmalat, or Borden's shelf-stable line); it can sit unopened in your pantry for up to a year. Once opened, both kinds should be refrigerated and used within 7 to 12 days—a day or two longer than pasteurized milk.

Should you buy it? Milk that's ultra-pasteurized isn't any safer or more nutritious, but it could be a good pick if you're slow to start a carton or like to buy in bulk. The shelf-stable kind is an excellent pantry staple (though some find it has a slightly burnt taste).

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Sally Kuzemchak, RD
Last Updated: October 01, 2012

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