What is the Difference between Whole Milk, Skim Milk, 2 Percent Milk, and 1 Percent Milk?

Remember when true skim milk was blue-white, and the edge around the glass was translucent? Why can’t we have good old skim milk back again?

When a billboard asks, “Got milk?,” we may be tempted to reply, “Can you be more specific, please? Are you asking about raw milk, pasteurized milk, homogenized milk, aseptically packaged milk, whole milk, skim milk, 2 percent milk, 1 percent milk, fat-free milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, or buttermilk?”

If cows ever knew how we humans monkey around with their God-given, natural product, they’d jump over the moon.

But first, do you think you know what milk is? According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 8, Chapter I, Part 124o, Subpart A, Section 1240.3(j), Release 13, milk is “the lacteal secretion obtained from one or more healthy milk-producing animals, e.g., cows, goats, sheep, and water buffalo, including, but not limited to, the following: lowfat milk, skim milk, cream, half and half, dry milk, nonfat dry milk, dry cream, condensed or concentrated milk products, cultured or acidified milk or milk products . . .” and on and on for eighty-eight more words.

Bureaucracy? What bureaucracy?

Now that we know what we’re talking about, always a good idea, let’s first tackle the fat problem. I’ll stick to the “lacteal secretion” of cows (genus Bos) only, assuming that you know what they are without the help of a zoologist or the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.

Our contemporary American society appears to have concluded that the 8 grams of fat in an 8-ounce glass of typical whole milk constitutes a serious threat to our survival as a civilization. Hence, our markets offer us a dizzying variety of milks with ever-diminishing fat contents.

In simpler times, one could obtain “skimmed milk” or “skim milk” by allowing most of the fat globules to rise to the top of a bottle of whole, unhomogenized milk and skimming off what we called “the cream,” as if milk and cream were two distinct products with nothing in between. But today, both milk and cream come in a variety of fat contents.

Our supermarkets’ dairy sections offer us a confusin’ profusion of choices, a broad spectrum of fat contents in milk products produced, according to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 8, etc., etc., “by modifying the chemical or physical characteristics of milk, cream, or whey by using enzymes, solvents, heat, pressure, cooling, vacuum, genetic engineering, fractionation, or other similar processes, [or] by the addition or subtraction of milk fat or the addition of safe and suitable optional ingredients for the protein, vitamin, or mineral fortification of the product.” But you knew all that, right?

So what’s a consumer to do?

Fortunately, what the dairy industry hath given, the government hath taken away. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has lumped the fat contents of milk and cream into only four categories of milk and six of cream, including two sour creams. Table 1 lists these products by the label names the FDA permits the manufacturers to use, as of a January 1998 regulation. The corresponding traditional names are shown in parentheses.

The numbers of fat grams and calories shown in the table are taken from the USDA’s Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, a compilation of the average compositions of virtually all foods. Individual brands, however, will vary somewhat.

Note that even though there are 9 calories in a gram of fat, the number of calories in a given milk product is not necessarily nine times its number of grams of fat; there are calories also in its proteins and carbohydrates. Also, because the various kinds of milk differ in more ways than fat content, the number of calories per cup won’t necessarily be additive or subtractive in line with the amount of fat.

From the table we see that eliminating virtually all the fat from whole milk reduces the number of calories per cup only from 149 to 86, saving you a mere 63 calories. On the other hand, substituting a cup of one kind of cream for another can make as much as a 50o calorie difference.

One cup of heavy whipping cream, incidentally, makes two cups of whipped cream, halving one’s guilt-by-volume. The second cup is pure, no-calorie air.

We perpetrate even greater crimes on milk than relieving it of its fat-induced richness. For example. we remove about 6o percent of the water from whole milk, put it in cans, and call it evaporated milk (19.1 grams of fat and 338 calories per cup). All of the milk’s fat is retained, except in the inevitable low-fat and no-fat versions of evaporated milk.

For example, evaporated skimmed milk (or is it skimmed evaporated milk?) contains o.5 gram of fat and 2oo calories per cup. Sweetened condensed milk (6.6 grams of fat and 98 calories per cup) is evaporated milk mixed with about 45 percent sugar.

And so it goes. Your precious skim milk still exists, albeit hidden behind any one of several modern aliases.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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