Get the Facts: Types of Milk Explained


What Are the Different Types of Milk?

Check your shopping list — how many gallons of milk do you plan to purchase for your family this week? What types of milk do you buy? If you’re like 96 percent of Americans, you have milk in your refrigerator, but what type of milk are you drinking? 

When you shop in the dairy case, the primary types of milk on sale are whole milk (3.25% milk fat), reduced-fat milk (2%), lowfat milk (1%) and fat free milk, also known as skim milk. These percentages are noted on the package, as well as the different cap colors to show the milkfat at a glance. This percentage tells how much fat is in the milk by weight. 

Measuring milk percentages by weight may be a bit confusing, so here are the facts about the different types of milk. All milk — from fat free to lowfat to organic, is a naturally nutrient-rich whole food — and there’s a favorite type of milk for each member of your family. Each type of milk packs the same nutrient punch, with nine essential nutrients including 8 grams of high-quality protein. The different colored caps only indicate the difference in calories and fat grams. 


Read more: 3 Things You Didn’t Know About Real Dairy Milk

There are three steps to processing all the types of milk and milk percentages for consumers to buy:

  • First, the raw milk is pasteurized, where it is heated to kill bacteria and extend its shelf life — which keeps milk fresher longer.
  • Homogenization is the next step. This process mixes and disperses the milk fat throughout milk, to create a uniform mixture. This prevents the cream from rising to the top.
  • Lastly, as part of the standardization process, cream is mixed into the skimmed milk more consistently to create a variety of milk-fat classifications, such as whole, reduced fat, lowfat and fat free (also known as skim milk). 

Because few foods, including milk, contain vitamin D naturally, this vitamin is added. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in milk, which ends up being removed along with the milk fat during standardization. These two vitamins are added back into the different types of milk. No sugar or other chemicals are added.

Learn more about what’s inside an 8-ounce serving of each type of milk:

What Is Whole Milk?

Many Americans opt for whole milk – which is actually 3.25% milkfat by weight – not as much as many people think. There are 150 calories in an 8-ounce glass of whole milk, with 8 grams of fat (12 percent of daily value).

And if you are concerned about consuming fat, there is good news. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests not all saturated fats are the same. While more research is needed on the potential benefits of dairy fats, experts agree milk plays an important role in a healthy diet – in the overall context of the total diet, nutrients and calories.

There also are other options for those who have different health needs or taste preferences, including reduced fat (2%), lowfat (1%) and fat free milk. Here are the facts about the other types of milk in the dairy case.

How Is Fat Free Milk Fat Free?

If you are looking for the same nutrients as whole milk, but want to cut calories and fat, fat free milk is a good choice. In fact, because it has less fat, there are just 80 calories in fat free milk in each 8-ounce glass. There is a misperception that fat free milk contains water to reduce the fat content — but that is not the case. The nine essential nutrients, including 8 grams of high-quality protein, remain intact.

Does 2% Milk Have 2% Fat Content?

Reduced-fat milk is labeled as 2 percent milk, which means the milkfat is 2 percent of the total weight of the milk — not that an 8-ounce glass of milk contains 2 percent fat. Here’s a 2 percent milk nutrition fact: An  8-ounce glass contains 5 grams of fat, and also has the same nine essential nutrients as every other type of milk.

What Are Some Basic Milk Nutrition Facts? 

Milk has nine essential nutrients; B vitamins for energy, high-quality protein for lean muscle, vitamin A for a healthy immune system and five bone-building nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting three servings of lowfat or fat-free milk or milk products, as well as eating right and staying active and for good health and weight. 

Read more: A Fresh Look: How Milk Travels From Your Local Farm and Why It Matters For Your Family