What is skim milk?

Skim milk is whole milk with the fat content removed or
Skim milk is whole milk with the fat content removed or "skimmed" from the surface. Whole milk contains around 3.5% fat while skim milk retains around 0.1% of its original fat.

Most children in the United States grow up drinking cow’s milk unless they have an allergy or their family follows a plant-based diet. If you were raised after the 1970s, you might have drunk skim milk or low-fat milk due to the growing concerns about research that linked dietary fat and heart disease. Before this point in history, most people drank whole milk without concerns about calories, saturated fat, or whether the milk was an organic or grass-fed product.

The calcium, fat-soluble vitamins, and protein found in milk are essential components of many people’s diets. If you’re a milk-drinker and you’re not sure which type is the right kind of milk for you, consider the following information to make a more informed choice.

Skim milk is whole milk with the fat content removed or “skimmed” from the surface. Though it's labeled "fat-free," in actuality, it retains around 0.1% of its original fat. 

Most of the fat in milk is saturated fat. While some saturated fat is OK and even beneficial to the human body, in large quantities, this type of fat can potentially raise your “bad” cholesterol, increase inflammation, and contribute to heart disease

Experts recommend that people who eat about 2,000 calories daily should limit their saturated fat intake to around 13 grams. Because skim milk has no saturated fat, it provides an attractive option for people concerned about their heart health.

What is whole milk?

This milk contains around 3.5% fat. Despite popular perception, most store-bought whole milk didn’t come out of the cow looking like it does. The milk you’re buying from the store is usually homogenized — which means that the fat, or cream, globules are blended in with the rest of the milk. 

If you’ve ever seen non-homogenized milk, you’ll notice that the cream stays on the top and is often broken up into chunks. In homogenized milk, you’re drinking the same amount of fat with each sip.

Whether you choose homogenized or non-homogenized whole milk, you’re ingesting a whopping 4.54 grams of saturated fat per cup. A consideration here is that this saturated fat might benefit your health and your heart, unlike the fat in red meat, which has a reputation for clogging arteries.

What are the benefits and risks of drinking each type of milk? 

Many people dislike skim milk due to its thin consistency and water texture. Others dislike whole milk because it’s too thick. Each type of milk comes with a unique nutritional profile. Skim milk might be more suitable for a certain group of people, while whole milk is better for another. Learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of drinking each type of milk if you’re having trouble deciding which type to buy.

Whole milk

Whole milk has a richer taste, and if you’re a milk lover, switching out this milk for another with a lower fat percentage might be challenging. It offers the following benefits:

  • It might contain healthier saturated fats that are slightly different than the saturated fat in meats. 
  • It may improve high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. In a controlled trial, whole milk increased HDL cholesterol in male participants without raising low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. In the same study, skim milk did not have an effect on good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, or blood glucose.
  • It aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D, and K.
  • It helps regulate blood sugar and curb hunger due to its filling fat content. 
  • Organic, grass-fed whole milk contains more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic or skim.

While there are many benefits to whole milk that most people aren’t aware of, there are times when whole milk isn’t appropriate. You should check with your doctor before switching to whole milk if you have heart disease or have been told in the past to reduce your intake of dietary fats.

Skim milk

Skim milk isn’t as flavorful, but some prefer the texture to the thicker whole milk. Skim milk provides these health benefits:

  • It contains a minimal amount of fat (so low that it can be classified as nonfat), which may be appropriate if you have concerns about heart disease or high cholesterol.
  • It might be easier to blend into smoothies and recipes due to its thinner consistency.
  • It offers 8.44 grams of protein per cup.

The downside of skim milk is that if you’re not eating enough healthy fats (like olive oil, salmon, and avocado), you might have trouble absorbing fat-soluble vitamins found in the milk. You might also feel hungrier sooner as the fat in milk can help you feel full.

QUESTION

According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

What if I don’t like milk or I can’t drink it?

Deciding which type of milk to buy isn’t just about health: For many people, it’s only about taste and texture. If you enjoy whole milk but don’t want the extra calories and saturated fat, try drinking 2% instead. If you dislike the watery consistency of skim milk, or if you’re concerned that your fat-soluble vitamins aren’t absorbing as well as you’d like, try 1%. 

Many people can’t drink milk at all — either for ethical reasons or health reasons — and struggle to find a suitable alternative. Plant-based milk is not all the same. For example, unsweetened soy milk is probably most similar in composition to skim milk because it contains a good amount of protein (almost three grams of protein per 100 grams of milk). Pea milk and flaxseed milk have similarly high levels of protein.

Other plant-based beverages, such as almond and rice milk, may not provide adequate nutrition compared to cow’s milk. It’s important to consult your doctor or meet with a nutritionist if you have concerns about switching to a plant-based diet, giving up milk, or taking your allergic child off milk to ensure that nutritional needs are met.

Is one type of milk best?

Experts are divided when choosing milk from either side of the saturated fat continuum. If you wish to cut calories, you might be tempted to switch to skim, but you could end up feeling hungrier and eating other foods that aren’t as healthy. If you choose whole, you might have concerns over your cholesterol or the additional calories.

For now, it’s probably safe to say that there is no clear “winner” regarding skim and whole milk: Both types provide clear, evidence-based benefits for the human body. The answer to this question likely comes down to individual preference and health. 

Talk to your doctor about whether switching to a different kind of milk would be better for your diet, your heart, or your overall health if you have a preexisting condition such as high cholesterol, obesity, or heart disease.

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Medically Reviewed on 9/20/2022
References
SOURCES:

American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat."

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Whole milk compared with reduced-fat milk and childhood overweight: a systematic review and meta-analysis."

American Society for Nutrition: "Going nuts about milk? Here's what you need to know about plant-based milk alternatives."

Cleveland Clinic: "Whole Milk or Skim? The Jury's Still Out."

The Clinical Biochemist Reviews: "Fat-Soluble Vitamins: Clinical Indications and Current Challenges for Chromatographic Measurement."

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Effect of whole milk compared with skimmed milk on fasting blood lipids in healthy adults: a 3-week randomized crossover study."

International Dairy Journal: "Nutrient density and nutritional value of milk and plant-based milk alternatives."

National Institute of Food and Agriculture: "What is the difference between whole milk and homogenized milk, if there is one?"

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Milk, nonfat, fluid, with added vitamin A and vitamin D (fat free or skim)," "Milk, whole, 3.25 milkfat, with added vitamin D," "Soy milk, unsweetened, plain, refrigerated."