Last Updated on January 20, 2022 by Michael Joseph
Milk is the first drink that every human drinks in their life, and it is a staple for millions of people around the world.
Yet we can often see contrasting stories in the media talking about how milk is either “good” or “bad” for us.
However, as with most nutritional topics, there is no black and white, and nuance is required when discussing milk’s health merits.
This article examines milk and its nutrition facts, benefits, and potential downsides.
Table of contents
What Is Milk?
Milk is one of the most popular types of dairy globally, and it is a nutrient-rich liquid food produced from the mammary glands of mammals.
It is possible to obtain milk from many animals, but milk sold commercially mostly comes from cattle (cows).
Despite this, it is also possible to buy goat milk, sheep milk, yak milk, and many other types of milk.
Global milk production is steadily rising and stood at approximately 532 million metric tons in 2020 (1).
In addition to being a drink, milk is vital for producing many different dairy products, including butter, cheese, yogurt, and many more.
‘Milk’ is not just one thing, and there are many different types of milk, each with their own unique properties.
For the purpose of this article, we will be referring to whole milk from cows.
As a liquid, milk is approximately 88% water by weight, with the other 12% containing a good range of nutrients (2).
Based on data from the USDA’s FoodData Central database, here are the nutritional values for whole milk (3.25% milkfat) per 249-gram cup serving. All daily values were calculated using USDA data and the FDA’s published daily values (2, 3).
|Name||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Carbohydrates||11.5 g||4% DV|
|Fiber||0 g||0% DV|
|Fat||7.97 g||10% DV|
|Saturated||4.54 g||23% DV|
|Protein||7.69 g||15% DV|
- Vitamin B12: 56% of the daily value (DV)
- Riboflavin (B2): 26% DV
- Pantothenic acid (B5): 18% DV
- Thiamin (B1): 12% DV
- Vitamin D: 12% DV
- Vitamin B6: 9% DV
- Vitamin A, RAE: 9% DV
- Choline: 8% DV
- Niacin (B3): 2% DV
- Vitamin E: 1% DV
- Iodine: 63% DV
- Calcium: 24% DV
- Phosphorus: 20% DV
- Zinc: 10% DV
- Selenium: 9% DV
- Potassium: 8% DV
- Magnesium: 7% DV
- Sodium: 4% DV
- Copper: <1% DV
Benefits of Milk
Based on its nutritional composition and research studies, here are some potential benefits of milk.
Milk provides a high-quality protein source
Milk offers approximately 3.3 grams of protein per 100 ml (2).
At first glance, this may appear small, but it can quickly add up if someone is drinking a glass or two of milk per day.
Additionally, the quality of the protein milk provides is very high. About 80% of the protein in milk is from casein, with the other 20% coming from whey (4).
Both casein and whey protein have high absorption rates and substantially affect muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS refers to the process of using dietary amino acids (protein) to make and repair muscle in the body (5, 6).
Furthermore, research has suggested that milk has higher bioavailability and net protein utilization rates than other protein foods, such as beef and soy (7).
However, it is worth pointing out here that skim milk is better if protein density is the goal.
Milk Intake May Help To Protect Bone Health
It is widely thought that sources of calcium are important for slowing bone loss, increasing bone growth, and preventing osteoporosis. In addition, calcium is particularly important with advancing age as bones start to lose calcium reserves (9).
As one of the best dietary sources of calcium, it is reasonable to suggest that milk may help protect bone health by increasing calcium reserves.
Interestingly, a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials examined this topic; the effect of milk supplementation on bone health (10).
This review analyzed 20 human trials and found “small but significant” increases in bone mass density from milk supplementation. These increases were found in the hip and spine but not across the whole body.
While summarizing, the researchers stated that milk might help prevent bone loss by restoring bone homeostasis. They argued this modulation would be through its ability to modulate the calcium, vitamin D, and parathyroid axis and increase the bone remodeling rate (11).
Bone’ homeostasis’ refers to the process of rebuilding bone at an equal rate to bone loss, thus negating the loss.
May Potentially Help With Weight Control, But Not Uniquely So
Some research has suggested that whole milk may potentially help with weight control.
For instance, an analysis of 37 randomized controlled trials noted that, as part of calorie-controlled diets, weight-loss interventions with a high dairy intake led to (12):
- Decreased body weight
- Lower body fat
- Smaller waist circumference
However, this was in a calorie-controlled environment, so we may not see the same result in real-world, free-living situations.
Also, a meta-analysis of clinical trials found that consuming over 500 ml of dairy products like milk had a satiating effect, probably due to the protein content (13).
A satiating effect in this sense means that people felt fuller and had less desire to eat more food.
However, a systematic review by the American dietary guidelines advisory committee concluded that:
To interpret this: milk might help with weight control, depending on what it is replacing in the diet. However, there would be no unique benefit of milk in this regard, and plenty of different foods can potentially play a role in weight control.
Overall, there is nothing to suggest milk would help more with weight control than other known satiating foods, whether potatoes, eggs, oats, fish, or protein foods in general (15).
Provides a Good Source of Iodine
Iodine is an essential mineral that many people fail to consume in sufficient amounts. For example, it has been estimated that around two billion people suffer from insufficient iodine intake globally (16).
On the positive side, iodine deficiency or insufficiency is now very rare in the United States and other countries with iodine fortification programs.
The earlier ‘nutrition facts’ section shows that just one cup of milk should provide around 64% of the recommended daily value for iodine (2).
This particular benefit may vary from country to country, depending on whether or not iodine is used within animal feeds (17).
Some countries where the milk contains iodine include Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States (18).
The iodine content is a key benefit of drinking milk because it can be quite challenging to get sufficient amounts of the mineral from other common foods.
As with all foods, there are also some potential downsides to be aware of regarding milk.
Some people are intolerant to lactose, which is the primary milk sugar. Therefore, it is known as lactose intolerance when individuals suffer from this issue (19).
The prevalence of lactose intolerance around the world is extremely high, and in some parts of Asia, it affects more than 90% of the population (20).
Furthermore, somewhere in the region of 65% of the world’s population has reduced ability to properly digest lactose after infancy (21).
This loss of digestive function is that some people can no longer produce a digestive enzyme called lactase after early childhood. Notably, lactase is necessary for properly digesting the lactose sugar in milk.
Unfortunately, lactose intolerance can cause a range of symptoms for people who suffer from it, including bloating, diarrhea, gas, and nausea (22).
Milk is one of the designated ‘big eight’ allergens and causes more allergic reactions and adverse effects than any other food (23).
Milk allergy usually develops in early childhood, and it has a higher prevalence in infants who were not exclusively breastfed (26).
Fortunately, milk allergy is relatively rare, people tend to outgrow it, and it only affects between 0.25 and 4.9% of the world’s population (27).
Milk allergies may present as abdominal cramps, itching, vomiting, wheezing and trouble breathing. Similar to all allergies, in case of a severe adverse reaction, anaphylactic shock is also a worst-case possibility, which requires prompt medical treatment (28).
Scientific Research on Milk and Health Outcomes
As one of the most popular foods that people consume, there has been a lot of scientific research on milk and different health outcomes.
It is always challenging to make a causal connection between a particular food and a health outcome. Still, when research is both statistically significant and consistent, it can be worth considering.
In this section, we’ll look at some of these consistent links found from studies high on the evidence hierarchy.
Milk and Acne
A meta-analysis of observational studies found that the highest dietary intake levels of milk were associated with a 48% increased risk of acne compared to the lowest. Additionally, increased acne prevalence was seen in a dose-response manner (29).
Milk and Cardiovascular Outcomes
There is mixed data on milk and cardiovascular outcomes.
A 2021 umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses found that milk intake was associated with slightly increased coronary heart disease mortality, but it was not associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality or total mortality (30).
In this same review, total milk intake was associated with a reduced risk of stroke, CVD, and hypertension. However, high-fat (whole) milk was slightly associated with increased stroke risk.
Additionally, a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies found that total milk intake was associated with a 2% higher risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), and high-fat milk was associated with an 8% increased risk. However, there was no statistically significant relationship between low-fat milk and CHD or total milk and stroke (31).
Milk and Cancer Outcomes
Overall, there is mixed research on milk intake and cancer outcomes.
Based on a review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, a table showing all the associations can be found here.
However, notable results include milk intake having consistently lower associations with colorectal cancers and higher associations with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, gastric cancer, and prostate cancer (30).
Milk and Inflammation
It is possible to find numerous claims about dairy products and milk being “inflammatory.”
However, there does not appear to be strong evidence to support such claims.
Firstly, a 2019 systematic review of fifteen randomized controlled trials found no inflammatory effect of milk. In contrast, the results suggested that milk had an anti-inflammatory effect (32).
Furthermore, a cross-sectional study examined 412 Portuguese adolescents based on their total dairy and milk intake. The results found that the participants with higher total intakes of milk (and total dairy) had lower levels of inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) (33).
Milk and Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by a progressive weakening of bones until they become prone to breaking (34).
Although it can occur at any age, osteoporosis is usually a disease that affects older adults.
Interestingly, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of large case-control and cohort studies found an association between higher milk intake and a lower risk of osteoporosis. However, there was no such association between higher milk intake and lower risk of osteoporosis in cohort studies, which are deemed to be more valid for causal inferences (37).
That said, the earlier referenced systematic review of randomized controlled trials found that higher milk intake could increase bone mass density in the spine and hip (10).
Thus, despite mixed observational research, it is feasible that consuming milk may help to protect against bone loss.
Further research may better clarify this.
Frequently Asked Questions
Since it is a liquid, it is understandable why some may think of milk as a drink. However, due to its complete nutrition provision of carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals, milk is widely considered to be food – a liquid food.
Raw milk contains the same nutrients as regular milk. However, it can also contain bacteria such as E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, which can be very dangerous. For this reason, raw milk is widely considered unsafe for consumption. As a result, the vast majority of milk for commercial sale is pasteurized to kill any potential bacteria that might be present.
There is no reason to drink milk every day, and there is also no reason not to. As part of a healthy overall dietary pattern, one can include some milk each day. Regularly consuming milk would most benefit individuals with an insufficient intake of nutrients like calcium, iodine, vitamin D, and protein.
10 Ways To Use Milk
There are many different ways to use milk; here is a list of ten for those who need some ideas.
- As a drink
- Added to black tea or coffee
- With breakfast cereal
- For making sauces such as cheese sauce, Béchamel sauce, and parsley sauce
- In baking
- Pancakes – combined with flour and eggs
- Making porridge
- Hot chocolate
- Making steamed milk for a latte or use with various drink powders
Is Milk Good For You?
As shown throughout this article, milk contains several beneficial components, and intake can help provide a wide range of essential nutrients.
However, it isn’t essential to consume milk, and there are other nutrient-rich foods for people with intolerance issues.
The mixed research on milk and various health outcomes should not be over-interpreted and need to be viewed with nuance.
For example, if an individual consumes excessive amounts of saturated fat and then adds several large glasses of whole milk per day, this would be a negative addition to the diet.
On the other hand, milk would be a great addition if an individual has an excellent overall diet but is a bit short on calcium and protein.
In other words: it is the overall dietary pattern that matters most, and milk can be a nutrient-rich part of a healthy eating pattern.