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Milk is full of Sugar!!

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Recently I’ve been hearing more people comment about how milk is full of sugar, so they avoid it, because sugar is bad.

It is true that milk contains sugar. And, not just flavored milk, but plain milk contains sugar. Just look at the label, there’s around 12 grams of sugar in 8 ounces of milk, regardless of fat content.

Does that mean milk is bad for you because it contains sugar? The short answer is no unless you are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy. The sugar in milk is not the same sugar that you find in soda, candy, and most highly processed sweet foods.

Before we go into detail about milk sugar, it’s important to understand what sugar is. Sugar is a compound that is made up of two molecules. Only three molecules make up a sugar compound, Glucose, Fructose, and Galactose.

What most people consider sugar are compounds that are comprised of Fructose and Glucose in various rations and as a solid or a liquid. Table sugar, powder sugar, confection sugar, etc. is solid in a 1 to 1 ratio of glucose to fructose bound together. High Fructose Corn Syrup can be in various ratios of glucose to fructose in a liquid solution, but not bound together. As the name implies there is typically a higher ratio of fructose to glucose. Honey, Agave, Maple Syrup, and Molasses are forms of liquid sugar in various ratios of fructose and glucose.

When we talk about the negative health impacts of sugar, often it’s the Fructose that is most concerning since the liver will preferentially convert fructose into fat when consumed in excess. Is fructose inherently bad for you? Not necessarily, it comes down to how much you consume on a regular basis and where you get it from. Fructose from fruit, not bad. Fructose from a 20-ounce regular soda is not so great for your body when consumed on a regular basis.

Like most foods, when simple sugars that contain fructose are consumed frequently, it can result in excess calories being consumed, which results in an increase in body fat. Our bodies need carbohydrates every day, even some simple carbohydrates every day can be beneficial for health.

The problem with our current food system and eating behaviors is that we consume significantly more calories daily than our bodies need to thrive. Those calories can come from sugar, fat, complex carbs, and even protein. Less likely protein, but still possible. Sugar is easier to overconsume than complex carbohydrates, health fats and protein, which is one of the reasons why they’re blanketly perceived as bad.

Back to milk. What kind of sugar is in plain milk? Lactose.

Lactose is a 1 to 1 ratio of Galactose and Glucose. It is found naturally in milk. Can you overconsume milk? Absolutely. However, it’s not the lactose that will increase body fat. It’s the total calories.

Lactose is why many people have a hard time drinking milk and experience unpleasant GI effects. Bloating, gas, diarrhea or loose bowel movements are most common. Individuals with lactose intolerance do not make an enzyme called Lactase. Without the enzyme to break the Galactose – Glucose bond, lactose isn’t digested or absorbed, but goes into the intestines and makes life unpleasant for a while. If you’re not lactose intolerant and don’t have a milk allergy, you should be able to safely consume milk without worrying about “All the Sugar!!!”

Where you will find added sugars in dairy products are flavored milk, like chocolate and strawberry, and flavored yogurt. They contain added sugars typically in the form of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup. The “added sugar” will increase the total sugar content of milk and yogurt, often by at least double. It’s important to read the nutrition facts and ingredients list of foods to see if “Added Sugars” are included in the nutrition facts, or if there’s sugar included in the ingredients list. Many yogurt options now use Stevia, Sucralose and other non-calorie sweeteners.

Avoiding plain milk because it contains sugar means you’re passing on a nutrient dense food that offers a great source of protein, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D (when fortified). Depending on the fat content of the milk, the calorie to protein ratio of an 8-ounce cup of milk is very high. The fat content of the milk you may choose to consume should depend on what your health and wellness goals are. Low fat milk has significant evidence that it can help maintain a healthy body weight. If you need, or desire, to gain weight, a higher fat content milk like 2% or whole milk may be a good option for you, in moderation since the fat found in milk is mostly saturated.

Is milk or dairy products for everyone? No, absolutely not. People with allergies to milk should avoid consuming any dairy product since all dairy products contain protein, which is what our bodies are allergic to, protein. People with lactose intolerance should avoid or limit dairy intake to manage symptoms based on quality of life. For example, someone with lactose intolerance who loves ice cream may eat ice cream occasionally and choose to tolerate the side effects. Lactase enzymes can also be consumed in a pill form to help digest lactose to reduce symptoms. For many, milk is a relatively affordable, nutrient dense food that can be incorporated into a healthy, well-balanced diet.

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