Fat-free? Ultra-Filtered? Understanding Types of Cow’s Milk

  • Article
  • 2 min read February 6, 2015

At one point in time, when Americans wanted to buy milk, they had only one option: Classic cow’s milk.

Over time, advances in food science and technology provided milk companies the ability to develop additional options – from whole to fat-free milk, and a host of other options like lactose-free. And today, new milk-based beverages have a home in the dairy case through innovative filtration processes.

But before we get too far, let’s start with the basics:

You may be familiar with the primary types of cow’s milks you can purchase at the store: whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2 percent), low-fat milk (1 percent) and fat-free milk (skim). Regardless of the fat level, all cow’s milk contains the same 13 essential nutrients – the only difference is the amount of butterfat they contain.

While the percentage of butterfat is clear for 2 percent, 1 percent and fat-free varieties, it’s a little less clear for whole milk. Whole milk, which is the closest to the way it comes from the cow, does contain all of the fat in milk – but that’s only about 3.5 percent. Since we’re talking specifics, fat-free – or skim – milk, contains no more than 0.2 percent milk fat.

So how do we get these different percentages of milk? Before milk is bottled, all of the cream is removed. This is done via a cream separator that uses centrifugation, not any sort of chemical extractions. Then, depending on the type of milk being bottled, cream is added back to the milk to reach the right butterfat concentration. The milk is still 100 percent real cow’s milk, the only difference is the amount of fat that is designed to meet people’s individual taste and dietary needs.  

Similarly, some milk companies embrace a similar concept to give Americans more of what they want. For example, one company, fairlife, offers “ultra-filtered” milk. Via their patented process, they take real cow’s milk and separate it into its five basic parts: water, vitamins and minerals, lactose, protein, and butterfat. They then recombine those parts in different percentages to make beverages that contain more protein and less sugar – which is perfect for those folks looking for more protein in their diet.

These processes are just some ways dairy companies have found ways to give people what they need and want!