Flavoured milk has a staggering amount of sugar added to it: a 600mL carton of chocolate milk contains 60g sugar (equivalent to 15 teaspoons sugar), which is almost as much as a same-sized bottle of Coke.
We all know that manufacturers add sugar to those sorts of beverages. But a quick look at the nutrition panel of an unflavoured milk seems to indicate that it contains sugar too – around 5g per 100g. This leads to the question – does milk contain added sugar?
This question often arises because food labels don’t differentiate between added sugars (like those used to sweeten flavoured milk) and the naturally-occurring "sugar" found in milk, known as lactose.
Although lactose is naturally present in milk, it is analysed under the blanket term “sugars” on the food label, along with any added sugars. Hence we see plain, unflavoured milk containing around 5g of “sugar” per 100g.
But what about reduced-fat milks? You may have heard that sugar is added to reduced-fat milks to retain their flavour when the fat is removed.
This is a myth.
It probably arose because there are indeed some low-fat foods that are pumped full of sugar to ensure they still taste good – especially flavoured yoghurt. But that’s not true of reduced-fat milk.
Take a look at this comparison of three milks from the same company – a full-fat milk at 3.4% fat, a low-fat milk at 1.3% fat, and a skim milk at 0.1% fat:
The reason that low-fat and skim milks are (very slightly) higher in "sugar" isn’t because extra sugar is added to them. It’s just a matter of basic mathematics: when you remove one thing, the proportion of everything that is left naturally rises.
So when manufacturers remove fat from milk, what is left is a more concentrated source of everything else. So that means slightly more “sugar”, but also more protein and more calcium.
This distinction between natural "sugar" (healthy!) and added sugars (not so healthy!) can be hard to grasp – and it’s one that as a Dietitian I spend a lot of time trying to explain.
In the case of milk, it’s fairly simple to find out for yourself if extra sugar has been added. Take a look at the ingredients list. If any sugar has been added, by law it must be listed. So instead of seeing “Ingredients: milk”, you’ll see “Ingredients: milk, sugar”.
And to be doubly sure, check the “sugar” content per 100g. You can expect it to range between 4-6g per 100g for plain, unflavoured, good ol' milk.
Dairy Australia. (2019). Is there added sugar in milk? Retrieved from www.dairy.com.au.
Saxelby, C. (2016). Does skim milk have more sugar than full-fat milk? Retrieved from www.foodwatch.com.au.