Whole Milk Versus Low Fat Milk

Not too many years ago, most milk sold in stores was whole milk but now, a variety of low fat milk options are available. If you’re confused about the fat content and nutritional differences between these various types of milk, here’s a little background information to help you out.

Whole Milk

Whole milk is milk that has been “standardized” to a specific fat and solids content. In the United States, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), specifies that whole milk is cow’s milk that contains at least 3.25% milk fat and 8.25% milk solids by weight. Other countries have similar guidelines.

The standardization process involves subjecting raw milk to centrifugal separators to separate out a skim portion and a cream portion of the milk. The cream portion, which has a higher fat content than the skim portion, is then added back to the skim portion to yield the desired fat content for the product – in this case, 3.25%. Note that the fat content of raw milk varies with animal breed, feed, stage of lactation, and other factors. This is why standardization is required.

Low Fat Milk

Low fat milk is sometimes used as a generic term for milk with a fat content less than that of whole milk. It can also refer to “low-fat milk” or “1% milk”, a specific type of milk product with a fat content of 1%. Other types of milk include 2% (reduced fat) and skim (nonfat). Skim milk technically has less than 0.5% fat.

Calories and Fat Content

A 1 cup serving of whole milk contains about 150 calories and 8g fat. For low fat milk, the numbers are: 2% milk -120 calories, 4.5g fat; 1% milk -100 calories, 2.5g fat, Skim milk – 80 calories, 0g fat.

Nutritional Differences

Milk is a good source of calcium, protein, potassium and magnesium. Whole milk is also considered a good source of vitamin A. Commercially produced milk, regardless of the fat content, is typically fortified with vitamins A and D so whole milk and low fat milk are nutritionally equivalent in terms of vitamins and minerals. However, most health professionals recommend low fat milk over whole milk because of its reduced fat and calorie content. But whole milk is considered a good option for toddlers over age 12 months who need calories from fat for growth and brain development.

Taste Differences

People who are used to drinking whole milk find it to be more fulfilling and better tasting than low fat milk. However, once they make the transition to low fat milk (1% or 2%), many find it to be an acceptable alternative. Furthermore, studies have shown that many cannot tell the difference between 1% and 2% milk. Skim milk is a different story – many consumers don’t care for its “thin” flavor and unappealing bluish cast.


The majority of whole milk produced commercially comes from cows although a number of other animals can produce milk. These include the camel, donkey, goat, horse, moose, reindeer, sheep, water buffalo, and yak.