What Children Get From Milk That You Don’t


I used to be very scared of fat.  Both the kind that might accumulate on me as well as the kind that had already accumulated in food.

The fat I found particularly threatening was dairy fat (whole milk and yogurt.) Thankfully the low-fat options were plentiful, I knew of no nutrient trade off and honestly, to choose otherwise seemed reckless. When you leave elementary school, you graduate to low fat milk – it’s a given.

Unfortunately though, when we lose our childish ways, we also lose our vitamins.

There is very little naturally occurring Vitamin A in 2% milk or lower.  It’s largely been stripped out with the fat as it’s fat-soluble. The government requires that it be added, and so a lab-created facsimile is poured back in. But without the fat, how much of this supplemental fat-soluble vitamin is even absorbed in our bodies is debatable.

There is also very little naturally occurring Vitamin D. (I was shocked too.)  It’s added to all milk but even more must be added to the low-fat versions because Vitamin D is also fat soluble.  They began adding D in the 1940s to combat rickets (a bone disease) in children. Vitamin D stimulates the body’s intake of calcium-which does naturally occur in milk- which is critical for bone development and adult bone health.

The campaign was so successful that the Vitamin D stayed. Unlike Vitamin A, D is not required by law though I’ve not come across any large producer that does not add it.  (Note: yogurt and cheese is not routinely fortified with Vitamin D, although some brands do.)

Interestingly, many farmers market milks (including raw) do not contain added Vitamin D. (Most like to keep the milk as pure as possible.) Pasture raised cows, however, naturally have slightly higher levels of Vitamin D because of more time spent in the sun.

When I daringly upgraded from skim to 1% a few years ago, I thought this was weight-control suicide. A year ago I made the insane leap to whole milk and yogurt. What I’ve found though is that it fills me more, nourishes me more and I eat less of it. I care far more these days about eating the “whole” version of a food and have become much more aware of the health benefits of fat. (Full disclose: there are times I am just not in the mood for full-fat, in which case I dilute it with water and create instant skim.)

I’ve also begun drinking farmer’s market milk and since it contains no added D, I make a bigger effort to enhance my body’s own production of it by getting out in the sun as well as eating eggs, meat and fish.

But you have to decide what’s right for your body and your overall diet. It took me 20 years to go from skim to 1% and another five to get to whole.  But I doubt I’ll go back. I like the idea that I’m drinking the milk I drank when I was a child – the way the cow intended it, with no adult intervention.

What are you drinking?

Related Posts
What’s Not In Your Organic Milk That Should Be
Soy Milk: A Bowl of Froot Loops In Every Glass?

Photo: Milk with A and D added. © Michelle Madden

To get deeper into the weeds of Vitamin D and milk click here.

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  • Lisa

    I also understand that low fat milk (in particular skim milk) has milk powder added back in order to raise the level of protein. I’m also quite sure that the fat in milk is necessary for protein absorption.

  • Juliana

    An important counterpoint – all the hormones / hormone disruptors found in non-organic milk settle in the fat, so if you are drinking organic, full fat is fantastic, but if you are drinking the regular hormone rich stuff, you have to make a trade-off – if you take the fat, you are also taking all the horrid hormones with what’s left of the vitamins after the UP.

  • Mary

    After learning about raw milk and the many bacterial benefits, besides the phenomenal taste, I truly do enjoy my glass of milk. I’ve removed all sugar and grains, but increased my fats and I’m losing weight. Go figure!!!

  • Kelly

    If your not drinking RAW from grass fed organic farmed cows or goats for that matter, your milk has indeed had intervention. The government required pasteurization process kills ALL of the nutrients nature intended then man adds them back in synthetic form…NOT GOOD and don’t even get me started on all the GMO feed and hormones. I am fortunate that I live in a state where the sale of raw milk is permitted, though big brother is looming ever near trying to stop it…SHOCKING! Many are standing up for their right to buy raw, there’s a great site with all sorts of info…check it out…http://www.organicpastures.com/ as for the fat…it’s the good kind, you need it!! My 2 cents 😉

  • Jillian

    I keep 2% in the fridge for me and whole for my daughter, but after reading this I took a closer look at the two of them … there is virtually no calorie difference!! (Both about 150/cup). There are 3g more fat in the whole than the 2% but I was shocked to see that the calories are about the same. Very interesting…

  • Michelle

    I have been a full-fat milk and yogurt person for a long time. Besides Greek Yogurt, I cannot find anything that has the “dreaded” full-fat; everything at the market is low-fat/nonfat. Sometimes I want something besides Greek–any suggestions?

    • Michelle

      If you’re anywhere near a farmers market go there and ask the milk vendors if they have full fat yogurt. Most will! If that’s not an option many of the WholeFoods stores are now stocking dairy products, including yogurt, from many of these smaller dairies. If that’s still not an option, most of the organic brands sell the whole milk version of yogurt.

      • Chris

        I started making my own organic whole fat yogurt when I wanted to introduce my infant son to dairy. I know, it sounds like a lot of work but it is ridiculously easy and tastes so much smoother. All you need is a litre of whole organic milk, a pot, a thermometer, and a jar. Instructions are everywhere on the internet. Give it a try–you’ll never have to buy pre-made yogurt again!

  • Laura

    I really like your blog but I have to take issue with your comment about drinking milk, “the way the cow intended it.” I know you probably said this lightly but really, it’s absurd to think humans are somehow built to drink any type of milk except mom’s breast milk. Past weaning, milk of any type isn’t even nutritionally necessary.

    There are potential drawbacks to consuming high-fat dairy that go beyond weight gain – especially with this highly processed, industrial “milk” most people are familiar with. I think if you’re gonna’ drink it- raw is definitely the way to go (and in moderation).

    • Michelle

      Thanks for raising this. Agree that milk is not nutritionally necessary — if you (and your children) are getting calcium, protein, Vit A etc from other sources- great! No need to drink milk. But if you DO drink milk and like it on your cereal or in tea or coffee or the occassional glass with a homemade chocolate chip cookie, there are things to be aware of … if you can get raw and trust the dairy, i’m with you 100% that this is preferable, if you can’t choose organic. If neither appeals, skip the milk. You’re no worse off without it.

  • denise

    I’m allergic to all dairy and soy; so I started making all my own milks out of nuts and seeds. I also add cultures to it by putting in some adzuki bean miso. It’s delicious and makes my stomach happy.

    • Michelle

      Really interesting – tell us more… Do you add the culture and let it sit for some period of time? Does the miso culture not make it quite salty? Do you then add a touch of sweet? Do you use store-bought miso?

      • denise

        I found the recipe for cultured “milk” on one of my favorite sites: http://bit.ly/cnoSTO

        The miso I got is from here: http://www.southrivermiso.com/


        The store bought nut milks taste pretty watery to me; so when I make homemade almond milk it tastes creamy and I really don’t notice the cultures. However, I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and knowing that it’s so good for me makes it taste even better. Make sense or am I crazy? If I’m in the mood I add vanilla stevia sometimes, but since I have candida I pretty much avoid sweetening it.

  • Dionne

    Michelle, yet another really insightful article. I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about trainers suggesting a return to full-fat (or as you like to call them ‘Whole’ foods). This has always seemed right to me and although I only ever buy butter (where oils won’t suffice – like on my toast), I did switch to 2% milk and low fat yoghurts a few years ago. But after seeing this, I might switch back. I need all the Vit D I can get living in the UK!

    Keep spreading the word – I love your site and eagerly await new posts!

  • Olivia

    Michelle, do you know how evaporated milk measures up?

    • Michelle

      Evaporated milk is simply dehydrated milk (ie. most of the water’s been boiled off) – not to be confused with condensed milk which is dehydrated milk with sugar added. From a nutrient standpoint, it’s been heavily boiled (extreme ultra-pasteurization) both to eliminate the water and allow for a long shelf life, so that will certainly impact the enzymes and very likely some of the vitamins. You can get it fat-free (where there will be no naturally occurring vitamin A) or full fat (where there will be some natural A still present). Evaporated milk will usually contain added Vitamin D.

      So I’d say use it for baking, if that’s what the recipe calls for, but as an equally nutritious substitute for milk as a beverage (ie. just add back the water and drink), I’d say it falls short.

  • debbiejl

    I love adding milk to my morning (and afternoon tea). However, I just found out that my cholesterol is way to high. So consuming a higher fat milk worries me. Do you have any comment/information about this? Thanks!

    • Michelle

      Debbie – We obtain cholesterol from both our diet as well as what our body naturally produces. The levels are largely determined by our genes and as such one could still have high levels even without consuming any cholesterol rich foods. Moreover, our bodies try to stabilize our cholesterol levels meaning that if you consume it in food, the body tends to lower the production of its own.

      Having said that though, saturated fats (like those in whole milk) do seem to play some role in elevating cholesterol, so if you have high levels, I think you are wise to consume whole milk in moderation. But from the sounds of it, the occasional pouring of it into your tea should not adversely affect you. (An important aside, consuming trans-fats though, has even a GREATER effect on cholesterol levels, so be sure to cut that out of your diet before cutting small portions of healthy whole milk.)

      I am not a doc though, so def talk this over with yours. You might also want to take a look at this very comprehensive article from Harvard’s School of Public Health, on this issue.

  • debbiejl

    Thank you Michelle! That was a great article and very informative! I recently found your blog and have been really enjoying it.

  • http://meagangracie.wordpress.com mjb

    After hearing a couple years ago that we don’t get the benefits of calcium from milk without fat, I switched from skim to 2%, but we’re also considering buying from a local farm. I don’t like low-fat sour cream or cottage cheese, and this year switched completely to plain yogurt to which I add jam or honey after I realized how much sugar was in every kind, even the Trader Joe’s whole milk and flavored greek yogurts. I’m pregnant so weight loss isn’t a factor right now, but I agree that eating less of more filling foods (including good protein sources) means I’m scrounging for snacks less later.

    • Michelle

      Am so with you on this … we also cant absorb calcium without vitamin D and though vitamin D is added to industrial milk, “farm” cows that actually hang out outside, soaking up sunshine, produce milk with higher levels of natural D.

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  • Mariepic

    wow how old are u to discover that? i am 26 and since i am teen i noticed the whole milk products nurish and fill u up more than the reduced ones……