Milk Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Milk annotated
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Not everyone can drink milk; some have a milk protein allergy or may be sensitive to the natural sugar, lactose, found in milk. But for those who can consume cow's milk, it offers many nutritional benefits. Milk's reduced and nonfat versions provide lean protein, and all cow's milk is an excellent source of the essential mineral calcium.

Milk Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for 1 cup (8 ounces) of reduced fat (2%) milk.

  • Calories: 122
  • Fat: 4.8g
  • Sodium: 115mg
  • Carbohydrates: 12g
  • Fiber: 0g
  • Sugars: 12g
  • Protein: 8g
  • Calcium: 293mg

Carbs

The sugar lactose provides all of the carbohydrates in milk. Some milk products also include added sugars. If you're trying to cut back on added sugars, you may want to limit your intake of these sweetened dairy products. Chocolate milk, strawberry-flavored milk, and ice milk have between 10 and 18 grams of added sugar per serving.

Despite its carb content, the glycemic index and glycemic load of milk are low: 1 cup of 2% milk has a GI of 27 and a GL of 4.

Fats

Milk is marketed by its fat content, making it easier to choose between different percentages: Whole milk is 4% fat, nonfat milk is 0%, and you can also get either 1% or 2% reduced-fat milk. Over half of the fat in milk is saturated fat. One-quarter of the fat is monounsaturated fat and a minor amount is polyunsaturated fat.

Milk can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, breast milk and infant formula contain more of the fatty acids babies need, so children under 1 year old should not drink cow's milk.

Protein

Milk is a good source of protein, with 8 grams per cup. Milk proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that humans need. Milk has 82% casein protein and 18% whey protein. These separate when milk coagulates, as is done to make cheese. These protein isolates are used in many other food products.

Vitamins and Minerals

Milk is a very good source of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. Additionally, milk in the US is fortified with vitamin D. It is also a good source of selenium, potassium, pantothenic acid, thiamin, and zinc.

Health Benefits

The USDA recommends including dairy foods in your diet. Milk and other dairy products help boost your calcium, protein, and vitamin D intake for strong bones and muscles. The USDA also recommends choosing dairy products without added sugars or sweeteners and those lower in fat.

Improves Bone Density

The calcium and vitamin D found in milk and other dairy products is important for bone health and strength, and may help prevent osteoporosis (a weakening of the bones that can cause fractures). Dairy product consumption in childhood and adolescence is linked to a lower risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Lowers Hypertension Risk

A 2013 study of over 3,000 women found an association between low dairy intake and both osteoporosis and hypertension, or high blood pressure. A review study also found that supplemented calcium intake slightly reduces blood pressure in people without hypertension, indicating that it may play a protective role.

May Protect Against Cancer

Research about the role of calcium in reducing the risk of some cancers (including colorectal, ovarian, and breast) has been mixed. But overall, it seems likely that calcium, from supplements and from dairy sources, may offer some protection against these cancers.

Improves Muscle Mass and Performance

A 2013 study of elderly women (ages 70 to 85) found that those who consumed 2.2 or more daily servings of milk, yogurt, and cheese had improved body composition and physical performance, compared to those who ate 1.5 or fewer servings a day. In younger women, using milk as a recovery drink after resistance exercise led to greater muscle mass, strength gains, and fat loss.

Helps Control Weight

A study of more than 18,000 women over 45 years old concluded that consuming dairy products may help prevent weight gain in women in this age group who start out at a normal weight.

Allergies

Milk allergy is very common in both children and adults. While studies vary significantly, it appears that milk allergy affects up to 3% of all children. Many of them outgrow the allergy by adulthood.

A milk allergy can cause a wide array of symptoms including skin reactions, gastrointestinal discomfort, airway problems, and even severe reactions such as anaphylaxis. Children and adults with milk allergy are also likely to have other food allergies and asthma.

Adverse Effects

People with lactose intolerance lack an enzyme that breaks down the lactose sugar in milk, which can cause gas, bloating, intestinal cramps, and diarrhea when they consume milk. If you are lactose intolerant, talk to your doctor or a dietitian about how to manage this sensitivity.

Your doctor or pharmacist may recommend avoiding taking certain drugs with milk, or consuming too much calcium in the form of supplements. Calcium may interfere with the absorption of salicylates, bisphosphonates, tetracyclines, thyroid hormones, fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin), and sotalol.

On the other hand, certain drugs may interfere with the absorption of calcium. These include anticonvulsants, cholestyramine, corticosteroids, ciprofloxacin, tetracyclines, mineral oils, and stimulant laxatives. If you take these types of drugs, talk to your doctor to make sure you are getting enough calcium.

Varieties

Reduced-fat milk (2% milk) is one of the most popular varieties of cow's milk. It provides less fat than whole milk but has a creamier taste and texture than skim milk. Here is how the different varieties stack up, nutritionally, per 1-cup serving (all data from the USDA). All varieties are comparable in carb and sugar quantity (about 12g each) and protein (about 8g each).

  Calories Calcium Total fats Saturated fats Unsaturated fats Cholesterol
Whole milk 149 276mg 8g 4.5g 2.5g 24.4mg
2% (reduced-fat) milk 122 293mg 5g 3g 1.5g 19.5mg
1% (reduced-fat milk 102 305mg 2.4g 1.5g 0.8g 12.2mg
Nonfat (skim) milk 90 316mg 0.6g 0.4g 0.2g 4.9mg

Storage and Food Safety

Milk is a perishable food. You should buy only as much milk as you will use within a short period of time. Before purchasing milk, check the "sell by" date on the container to be sure that it has not already passed. Keep it refrigerated at 38 to 40 degrees F. As long as it smells good, it is usually still safe to consume.

How to Prepare

Milk can be enjoyed as a beverage on its own or added to hot and cold beverages such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and smoothies. Milk is often used as a base for gravy or sauces. You can also make your own yogurt from milk.

When using milk in cooking, you can take steps to keep it from curdling. Milk should be warmed before being added to a hot liquid. The sauce should be simmered and not allowed to come to a boil. You can stabilize the milk emulsion with a starch such as flour or cornstarch. You should also avoid adding strong acids, such as wine, tomatoes, or lemon juice, to a milk emulsion. In many recipes, you can use reduced- or non-fat milk in place of higher-fat milk, if you are looking to reduce fat intake.

Recipes

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