Learn about milk's history, nutrition, health benefits, and get answers to common questions about milk.

Milk: Origin & History

Throughout history, milk has been used as a source of nutrition and is a staple in the human diet.

While it’s tricky to pinpoint one instance in time that simply explains how milk was discovered, scientists have ample evidence that humans began drinking milk from animals at least 10,000 years ago. Milk drinking is not just a practice of Western culture, but a shared part of human existence around the world, as archaeologists and anthropologists have found.

Milk Nutrition

Today, the dairy aisle is packed with milk options to meet people’s health, taste, and cooking needs. The primary types of milk available are whole milk (3.25% milk fat), reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%) and fat-free milk, also known as skim milk. Other types of milk include lactose-free milk, flavored milk, cultured milk, and more.  

While there are many different types of milk available in the dairy aisle, all cow’s milk contains 13 essential nutrients, including 8 grams of high-quality protein. Milk can vary, however, by percentage of milkfat which is the amount of fat that is in the milk by weight. These percentages are noted on the package and by the different cap color.

The calorie differences between cow’s milk is due to differing fat content.

  • Fat-free milk contains 0% milkfat by weight and about 80 calories per cup.
  • Low-fat milk contains 1% milkfat by weight and about 100 calories per cup.
  • Reduced-fat milk contains 2% milkfat by weight and about 120 calories per cup.
  • Whole milk contains 3.25% milkfat by weight and about 150 calories per cup and is most like its original state when it comes from the cow.  

Although milk and plant-based alternatives sit side-by-side in the dairy case, non-dairy alternatives often do not provide the same nutrient profile as cow’s milk. You can count on cow’s milk to have a consistent composition as reflected in its standard of identity.

By contrast, the composition of plant-based alternatives varies by brand. Cow’s milk is naturally rich in certain nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin and vitamin B12. Plant-based alternatives are often fortified with nutrients they do not naturally contain. Cow’s milk typically delivers a higher quality and amount of protein than some plant-based alternatives. For example, almond, oat, and coconut beverages offer little or no protein per 8-ounce serving (0-4 grams), while cow’s milk provides 8 grams of high-quality protein for the same serving size. 

More and more, scientific evidence is revealing that the food matrix – the interaction between the nutrients, bioactive components and physical structure of a food – can impact health in significant and unexpected ways. Beyond  milk’s 13 essential nutrients is the concept of the dairy matrix. While others can mimic dairy’s nutrients through fortification, the milk matrix cannot be mimicked. Milk contains potentially bioactive peptides, lipids and carbohydrates as part of its food matrix. Ongoing research is exploring the role of bioactive food components in the prevention of disease.

Know Your Milk

Milk and non-dairy or plant-based alternatives are not created equal when it comes to nutrition. See how each drink stacks up when you compare nutrients and ingredients for each product label.


Health Benefits of Milk

Milk is a nutrient-rich and affordable source of thirteen essential nutrients like protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, iodine, selenium, magnesium and vitamins A, D, B12, riboflavin (B2) and pantothenic acid (B5). Milk is also the leading food source of three nutrients of public health concern (calcium, vitamin D and  potassium) for children 2-18 years and the leading food source of calcium and vitamin D for all Americans over the age of 2. 

Healthy eating patterns are associated with lower risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Eating dairy is also linked to improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents. 

What Does the Research Say?

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recognizes that dairy foods, including milk, play an important role in healthy eating patterns from infancy through adulthood. Healthy dietary patterns, which include low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, are associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. In adults, drinking milk has been linked to an 8 percent lower risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Consuming dairy foods like milk is also linked to improved bone health throughout childhood and into adulthood. For older adults, drinking milk and eating other dairy foods is associated with a lower risk of hip fracture in both men and women. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 16-24 fl oz. of plain whole milk for children starting at one year. Plant-based alternatives should not be the main beverage for young children, according to an expert panel from four key national health and wellness organizations: the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). A consensus recommendation “Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood” was released in September 2019. 

Chocolate Milk

Chocolate milk has the same 13 essential nutrients as white milk, including 8 grams of high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, and more.  In addition to being delicious, it has the right carb-to-protein ratio, making an excellent post-workout recovery beverage. 

Learn More

Milk in New England

Even as food supply chains have become longer and more complicated, milk remains a consistently local food, no matter the season.

The majority of milk and dairy products in our region are sourced from the over 1000 family farms in New England or neighboring farms in Eastern New York. 

If just being pasteurized and packaged as fluid milk, the whole process from farm to store occurs in just about 48 hours.

Milk FAQs

How was milk discovered?

While it’s tricky to pinpoint one instance in time that simply explains how milk was discovered, scientists have ample evidence that humans began drinking milk from animals at least 10,000 years ago. 

  • Evidence of intensive dairy farming in Ireland and using milk to make butter, cheese and yogurt goes back 6,000 years, according to researchers who found fatty acids from milkfat preserved in cooking vessels. 
  • Milk consumption in central Europe, including Poland and the Netherlands, has been traced as far back as 5,200 B.C. by archeologists who found well-preserved milk fat on samples of ceramic strainers used for making cheese. 
  • A scientific report provides direct evidence of people drinking milk (from cows, sheep and goats) as early as the Bronze Age (3,000 B.C.). Researchers found dairy protein (β-lactoglobulin) residue on archeological tooth samples of people living in Europe and northern Southwest Asia. 
How many calories are there in 1 cup of milk?

The calorie differences between the primary types of milk are due to their differing fat content. 

  • Fat-free milk (0% milkfat): 80 calories per cup 
  • Low-fat milk (1% milkfat): 100 calories per cup  
  • Reduced-fat milk (2% milkfat): 120 calories per cup  
  • Whole milk (3.25% milkfat): 150 calories per cup 
Is milk good for you?

Yes. Milk contains 13 essential nutrients like high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D and more. 

These nutrients help our bodies function properly. For example: 

  • Protein helps build and repair muscle tissue 
  • Calcium and vitamin D help build and maintain strong bones and teeth 
  • Protein, zinc, selenium and vitamins A and D help support a healthy immune system. 

Milk also contains B vitamins, which can help your body convert food into fuel: 

  • Vitamin B-12 
  • Riboflavin (B2) 
  • Pantothenic acid (B5) 
  • Niacin (B3) 
What’s the difference between conventional and organic milk?

All milk produced in the US must adhere to the same strict federal standards for quality, purity and sanitation. In terms of quality, safety, and nutrition, there’s no difference between organic and regular milk. They contain the same amount of 13 essential nutrients per serving. The difference is how they are produced on the farm.   

Those using the “USDA organic” seal must ensure that the milk comes from dairy farms that meet the following criteria: 

  • Cows spend at least 120 days per year on green pasture. They usually eat supplemental feed as well, to make sure they get enough protein. 
  • In the winter, cows on organic dairy farms eat the same type of feed as cows on other farms, except the ingredients must be certified organic and grown without the use of pesticides, commercial fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds. 
  • Organic farmers are still able to use pesticides – but they are approved for organic use. 
  • Cows are not treated with supplemental hormones (rbST). 
  • Cows have not been given antibiotics to treat illness. If a cow at an organic dairy farm does have to be treated with antibiotics, the farmer can no longer use her milk, even after she is no longer taking antibiotics. There are never antibiotics in your milk once it’s at the store whether it’s organic or regular.  

Conventional dairy farms may use some of the same management practices listed above but choose not to undergo the rigorous organic certification process. For example – New England dairy farmers no longer use supplemental hormones (rbST) to increase milk production. 

What is A2 Milk?

Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein per 8-ounce cup of milk, and approximately 30-percent of this protein is beta-casein. Two common variants of beta-casein found in cow’s milk are A1 and A2. Some cows produce milk with an equal ratio of both A1 and A2 proteins, and some cows only produce the A2 protein. A2 milk only contains the A2 beta-casein protein. A2 milk is still cow’s milk and the nutrient levels – like calcium, potassium, protein, and vitamin D – are the same.  

When compared to drinking regular cow’s milk, some people with undiagnosed dairy intolerance have reported that drinking A2 milk does not result in discomfort. These claims are person-specific. Claims that A2 milk reduces dairy-related inflammation, heart disease risk, or type 1 diabetes risk have not been supported by the science. The health benefits of A2 milk remain a theory, and more research is needed. 

Further Reading

Milk Blog Posts

  • Fat-Free Milk vs. Whole Milk: What are the Nutritional Differences?

    This article will dive into differences and similarities between fat-free milk nutrition and whole milk nutrition to help you decide the best option for your lifestyle and health.

    Learn More
  • Dairy Milk vs. Plant-Based Milk: What are the Nutritional Differences?

    Learn how dairy milk compares to plant-based milks in terms of cost, protein, vitamins, minerals, and effects on human health.

    Learn More
  • Can You Freeze Milk?

    Have you ever been in the situation where you bought too much milk to use before it goes bad? The short and simple answer: Freeze your milk.

    Learn More

Sign up for our monthly newsletter!