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From semi-skimmed to protein enriched: choosing the right milk

We unravel the most common varieties of milk and why you might choose them

Think milk is milk? Think again. These days there are almost as many varieties of milk as there are ways to enjoy it - in a refreshing smoothie, warm at bedtime or all over your cereal at breakfast. Whether you’re a full-fat aficionado or a lover of low-fat, there’s a milk out there to suit everyone.

Whole milk

In Ireland, whole milk typically contains 3.5 per cent fat. Fat is vital for healthy cell membranes and for the creation of myelin, which helps nerves. The body needs it to absorb fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins. It’s also a source of energy.



Semi skimmed milk contains no more than 1.8 per cent fat, giving it around half the fat content of whole milk. You’ll often see it for sale in shops as “low fat”.


Although it is sometimes marketed as “fat free”, skimmed milk actually contains around 0.5 per cent fat. Despite being virtually fat free, it is not lower in calcium than whole milk, which might make it a healthy alternative for some.


Fortified milks, which can be either whole or semi-skimmed, contain added vitamins and minerals. These typically include vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin and folic acid, which is especially important for women who may become pregnant.


Buttermilk was traditionally the milk leftover from the churning of butter. Though traditionally drunk straight, and prized for its slightly tart creaminess and nutritional value, today it’s more likely used for baking, particularly for brown breads and pancakes. Modern dairies add their own specially selected cultures to give it that signature, slightly bitter, taste.

Protein milk

Although milk is naturally rich in protein, some milk producers have added additional whey and casein protein, to create a product of interest to sports people.

Lactose free

Not everyone can tolerate lactose, a natural sugar present in milk. Lactose-free milk is now available. Made from regular cows’ milk, it has an added enzyme, lactase, which breaks down the lactose in the milk into two simple sugars which are easier to digest. Though not suitable for people suffering from galactosaemia, it presents others with an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of milk without the lactose.

Plant sterols

Milk with added plant sterols is increasingly available. Plant sterols have been shown to help reduce cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. Typically almost fat free, milk with added plant sterols can be drunk straight or used on cereals and in tea and coffee in the usual way. Research suggests that consuming 2-3 glasses every day for 2-3 weeks can help reduce cholesterol by 7 to 10 per cent.

Organic milk

Organic milk comes from cows raised on farms that use organic farming methods. The nutritional differences between organic and regular milks are small and related to the pasture grazing of organic cows. Organic milk usually contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, although the absolute amount is still quite low. Therefore, this may have little effect in the context of an individual’s overall diet. Organic milk also contains about a third less iodine compared to regular milk. Iodine is an important nutrient that contributes to cognitive function and is therefore particularly important for pregnant women.

Raw milk

Raw milk is unpasteurised milk. Pasteurisation is a process used to kill harmful microbes in milk. Familiar to people raised on farms, raw milk is marketed as a natural, whole, unprocessed, living food by artisanal or micro dairies. It should be consumed with caution however as studies have shown it carries a risk of harmful bacteria.

Chocolate milk

Chocolate milk is typically regular milk with added sugar and artificial and/or natural colours and flavours. Therefore, it still contains the nutrients of regular milk such as protein, calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, iodine, phosphorus and potassium. Low-fat chocolate milk is often a popular option among sports people after intense exercise, due to the added sugar and therefore increased carbohydrate content.

For more information visit ndc.ie/dairy-goodness

The National Dairy council