Get the most bang for your buck on the dairy aisle with our expert information.
Credit: Randy Mayor

Today’s supermarket shelves are stocked with conventional, organic, hormone-free, enriched, and sometimes even raw (that is, unpasteurized) milk. Each type is available with varying levels of fat―whole, 2 percent (reduced-fat), 1 percent (low-fat), nonfat (skim), along with half-and-half and cream, both heavy and light. Here you’ll learn how to make the most of those many choices.


More than 99 percent of U.S. milk comes from cows, mostly familiar black and white Holsteins. Twenty-three percent of the nearly 22 billion gallons produced in a year is sold as milk and cream, 40 percent goes to cheese, 18 percent to butter, and 8 percent to ice cream. Ten states―California, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan, Texas, and Washington―produce 72 percent of our milk.


Processing: About 95 percent of milk is pasteurized―quickly heated to 162 degrees and then cooled to destroy bacteria and microorganisms. (The remaining 5 percent is unpasteurized and known as “raw” milk.) UHT (Ultra-High Temperature) milk is flash-sterilized at temperatures up to 300 degrees, then packed in shelf stable aseptic cartons. Most milk is also homogenized to prevent fat molecules from separating, keeping it smooth and creamy.

Hormones: All cows generate natural bST, a hormone that helps them produce milk. Some dairy farmers supplement with synthetic rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), boosting production by as much as one gallon a day per cow. According to the FDA, World Health Organization, and others, milk from these cows is safe, but the use of rbST is illegal in many countries and critics question its safety.


Varied fat content: In its unadulterated state, milk is about 87 percent water, 5 percent sugar or carbohydrate, 3.5 percent protein, and less than 4 percent fat. In times gone by, to make reduced fat milk, dairy farmers would simply skim off the high-fat cream layer that naturally rose to the top. Today, dairies use centrifuges to spin off the fat, resulting in milk of varying fat levels.

Most major health authorities, including the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommend you choose low- or nonfat milk and other dairy foods to meet the recommended three daily servings. Cooking Light agrees; low-fat or fat-free milk is ideal for drinking or pouring over cereal. However, all forms of dairy find a place in our recipes, depending on the need (see below).

Organic: About 3 percent of America’s milk is organic, and the market is growing. New USDA rules require that organic cows be kept on pasture at least half the year so they can obtain plenty of fresh grass. Organic cows may not be treated with synthetic hormones to boost milk production.

Nutritional differences are currently under study. Two studies compared organic to conventional milk and found organic contains slightly more antioxidants and vitamins, and higher levels of two healthful fatty acids: omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid. 


Calories and fat content differ widely among milks and creams. These figures are based on 1-cup servings.

Nonfat (skim) milk: 83 calories, 0.2g (grams) fat (0.1g saturated). Best uses: Use as a drink, on cereal, or in sauces that are thickened with flour to compensate for fat-free milk’s lack of body.

1 percent (low-fat) milk: 102 calories, 2.4g fat (1.5g saturated). Best uses: Use in dishes that have another source of fat providing creaminess, like cheese in macaroni. Also good in coffee.

2 percent (reduced-fat) milk: 122 calories, 4.8g fat (3g saturated). Best uses: Use to reduce fat but retain an element of richness in dishes like chowder or ice cream where milk is a primary ingredient.

Whole milk: 146 calories, 8g fat (4.5g saturated). Best uses: Especially useful for baked goods, where it contributes flavor and texture.

Heavy cream: 821 calories, 88g fat (55g saturated). Best uses: Reserve heavy cream for finishing, like a small amount to thicken a pan sauce, for example.

Half-and-half: 315 calories, 28g fat (17g saturated). Best uses: Use in combination with reduced-fat milk in creamy soups or sauces. Add half-and-half at the end so it doesn’t separate.


Fortification: By U.S. law, 2 percent, 1 percent, and nonfat milk must be nutritionally equivalent to whole milk, so dairies replace the vitamin A that is lost with the removal of the fat. Eight ounces of 2 percent, 1 percent, or fat-free milk contain 10 percent of the recommended dairy intake of vitamin A.

Although vitamin D fortification is optional, more than 90 percent of the milk we buy is fortified with the nutrient, which helps your body better absorb calcium. Eight ounces contain 25 percent of the recommended amount.

Lactose sensitivity: A high proportion of adults from non–Northern European backgrounds are lactose intolerant; they can’t digest lactose, the primary sugar found in milk. To better tolerate lactose, introduce dairy foods slowly, drink lactose-free milk, choose aged cheeses that are low in lactose, or take the enzyme lactase to help digestion.

For those who don’t eat dairy, choose calcium-fortified alternative milk made from rice, soy, hemp, oats, or almonds. All are lactose- and cholesterol-free, and low in fat. Shake well before drinking; studies have shown that the valuable calcium sinks to the bottom of cartons containing calcium-fortified milks. Goat’s milk, which is more common worldwide than cow’s milk, is another option for the lactose-intolerant.

About raw milk: Although the dairy industry, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly support pasteurization, demand for raw milk is growing. In 26 states, consumers now can buy raw milk and cheese, with certain restrictions.

Advocates believe raw milk is tastier and healthier, and that pasteurization destroys beneficial bacteria, proteins, and enzymes. However, because of these bacteria, it’s important for pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people to avoid raw milk and products that are made from it.


Examine the packaging: Look for milk in opaque containers; milk in clear containers can lose significant amounts of vitamin A and riboflavin through exposure to light.

Buy the freshest: Choose the container with the latest sell-by date from the coldest part of the refrigerator case. (This may necessitate reaching to the back of the case.)

Keep it that way: Keep milk cold on the way home, preferably in an insulated bag. For each 18-degree increase in temperature, the spoilage rate of milk doubles. If it takes 45 minutes to get milk from the dairy case to your home, milk may already have risen from its preferred temperature of 33 to 40 degrees to nearly 60 degrees on a warm day. If stored properly, milk will keep up to five days beyond the sell-by date.

But don’t freeze it: Freezing is not recommended, as it causes separation and graininess.


Compare store brands and national brands. Store-brand (or private-label) dairy products are often made by the same dairies that sell the products for a higher price under their own brand name. Because of consumer demand, most store-brand milk is now rbST-free.

Flavor your own. To save money, add your own chocolate syrup or sweetened cocoa powder to plain milk. If needed, package individual servings in a reusable container. (Do the math and you’ll see that a cute little 8-ounce container of organic chocolate milk can cost more than $5 per quart.)

Buy fresh. Contrary to what you might expect, using reconstituted powdered milk won’t save much money. You’ll need about one dollar’s worth or 3.2 ounces (about 1 1/3 cups) of powdered milk to make one quart of milk, about the same cost as a quart of fresh milk if you buy it by the half or full gallon.

Consider signing up for home delivery. Look into home delivery, if available in your area. The extra cost is usually low (about $3.75 per week), and you’ll be assured of fresh milk (often delivered in reusable glass bottles) from a local dairy that may also deliver other products, such as cheese and eggs.