Cow’s Milk: Fat Content, Pasteurization and Your Health

Milk has been referred to as one of the most perfect foods on earth. A mother’s elixir, it contains essential vitamins and minerals, and even natural antibodies that help fight illness and disease. Milk isn’t something to be taken at face value, however. Behind us are the days when our only choices were milk and cream. Today we have a virtual smorgasbord of cow’s milk varieties available from which to pick and choose, depending on our personal preferences, culinary needs and health requirements.

Whole milk – The true definition of whole milk is that from which none of the cream has been removed. The fat content of whole milk will vary slightly according to the type of cow that produced the milk, but in general, it will contain about 3.25 percent fat. Vitamin D milk is whole milk which has been fortified with Vitamin D.

Cream – Heavy whipping cream is a component of whole milk that is removed before processing. It has a fat content of between 36 and 40 percent.

Half and half – This manufactured product contains half milk and half cream, and has a fat content of between 10.5 and 18 percent.

Buttermilk – Contrary to its name, buttermilk does not contain significant amounts of butter. Instead, it is the liquid that remains after butter has been churned from cream. Today, buttermilk is also manufactured in a fermentation process and is commonly called “cultured buttermilk.” The fat content of buttermilk will depend on the fat content of the milk from which it was made.

Unsweetened condensed and evaporated milk – Through a high-heat process, 60 percent of the water is removed from milk to produce these products. The end result is a thicker, slightly darker product that does not require refrigeration.

Reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free milk – Whereas whole milk has about 3.25 percent fat, reduced-fat milk contains 2 percent fat, low-fat milk contains 1 percent fat, and fat-free milk contains no fat.

Pasteurized milk – Pasteurization is a process that involves heating milk to a specified temperature to kill harmful bacteria and prolong its shelf life. The ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurization process raises the milk to a much higher temperature, not only increasing its shelf life, but also making refrigeration no longer necessary. This type of milk is readily available in many lesser developed countries where refrigeration is not as prevalent.

Homogenized milk – Once milk is pasteurized, it goes through the homogenization process to permanently blend the milk to prevent the milk solids from separating from the liquid.

Fortified milk – After homogenization, milk is often fortified to replace nutrients that may have been lost in processing, as well as add additional nutrients. Vitamin D, which helps with the absorption of calcium, is one nutrient that is commonly added to milk products in the United States.

Raw milk – Raw milk is that which basically comes straight from the animal. It is not pasteurized, homogenized or fortified. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that raw milk is not safe for consumption due to a variety of disease-causing pathogens.

Organic milk – Many people confuse organic milk with raw milk. Organic milk is produced by farmers who use only organic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, and from cows that are not given hormones. Organic milk is then processed just like the other varieties noted earlier.


Cornell University, “Nutrient Content of Milk Varieties,” MilkFacts.Info

California Department of Food and Agriculture, “Buttermilk,” CaliforniaDairyPressroom.Com

Dairy Council of California, “Types of Milk,” DairyCouncilOfCa.Org

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Questions & Answers: Raw Milk,” FDA.Gov

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