Decoding whole milk, skim milk, raw milk, nut milk and more
EC: What's the Difference Between Types of Milk?
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Has milk selection always been so complicated? Perhaps it’s fallout from the Starbucksification of our nation’s ordering system (so freaking many choices!) but just when you think you’ve gotten through your coffee order, you suddenly have to sort out the different kinds of milk. And there is a whole dairy-load of them. Not to mention nondairy milk. And raw milk. And ultra-pasteurized milk. And lactose-free milk. (And even banana milk.) Knowing the types of milk available on your grocer’s shelves, at the coffee counter or at a farmstand can mean the difference between a smile, a frown, or even a stomach ache. Do your body and brain some good and learn the difference between types of milk.

Whole milk

Let’s get the whole percentages thing sorted first. The number you see listed in the name of a milk is the measure of how much fat is in the milk by weight. Whole milk is pretty much how it comes straight outta the bovine—around three and a half percent fat—before it’s processed (if we’re talking grocery store milk, that is). This process takes place in three steps: pasteurization (which destroys bacteria and extends shelf life), homogenization (which keeps milk from separating), and fortification (to replace any nutrients that might have been lost during procession, or just increase its nutritional value). Though “whole” is often misinterpreted as being chock-a-block with fat, the term really just means that nothing has been stripped out.

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Partly-skimmed milk / reduced-fat milk

All of the above processing applies, with one key difference: Some of the milkfat is removed. Or, rather, the cream is skimmed out and then added back in to create 1 percent or 2 percent milk. Sure, it saves a few calories, but YOLO, people.

Skim milk / nonfat milk

The cream/fat gets wholly removed and not replaced. Some might argue that the same could be said for the joy and pleasure.

Raw milk

Generally speaking, you’ve gotta know a guy to get this—or at least a farmer. (It’s always nice to know a farmer.) Laws vary around the country, but in many states there’s a legal battle to get this unpasteurized milk (usually from grass-fed, organically-raised cows or goats) onto grocery store shelves. The pasteurization process entails heating milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds to kill bacteria like campylobacter, E. coli and lysteria. Advocates for raw milk prefer its flavor, direct connection to the source, lack of artificial hormones, and purported health benefits (everything from clear skin to immunity boosts). Raw milk naysayers fear outbreaks of foodborne illness. Moo.

Ultra-pasteurized milk

Raw? Naw. This is pretty much the opposite. Ultra-pasteurized milk (also called UHT milk) is heated to 280 degrees for about two seconds, then chilled quickly. This allows producers to pasteurize large quantities of milk at once and it remains shelf-stable for months. It does, however, change the texture and flavor of the milk, and producers may add congealing agents (seaweed-derived carageenan or bean-based guar gum) to restore creaminess. Mmmmmm!

Creamline milk

Creamline milk hasn’t been homogenized, so if it sits on a shelf for a while, you’ll see the separation in the form of a line where the cream has risen to the top. Some dairy devotees will scoop out and savor the top layer alone, but most will just give it a quick shake before pouring.

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Lactose-free milk

For folks with a lactose intolerance (meaning their stomach doesn’t produce the lactase it requires to break down lactose, thus making things gastrically gnarly), lactose-free milk is a godsend. It’s the same as regular milk, but fortified with lactase, which makes it taste a little sweeter and prevents the otherwise inevitable stomach discomfort. Ultra-pasteurization keeps the lactase inactive on the shelf, and means it can stay fresh—unopened—for two to three months.


Despite the name, this is not buttery milk—which frankly sounds delicious. In days of yore, this referred to the liquid left over after the butter solids were strained out and left overnight to ferment. In its much more common contemporary incarnation, it’s milk to which either an acid (often vinegar or lemon juice at home or enzymes, commercially) or bacterial cultures are added and the liquid is allowed to ferment. Sure, you can chug it, but it’s even better as a baking ingredient.

Nondairy milk

Yeah. The “milk” part here is a lie—but a benign one for the sake of people who can’t or don’t care to consume dairy. Rice milk is rice that’s been boiled or blender-buzzed with water and strained. Nut milk is made by soaking, grinding and straining raw nuts—almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and pistachios are pretty popular—and often has sweetener added. Soy milk—same deal, but with soybeans. Hemp milk and coconut milk, you can probably guess by now. You are clever and mighty. You have been drinking your milk.