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Sugar Content of Milk! Really?

I am very confused. I had no idea that milk, in its natural state, had a sugar component in its makeup. Is that why plain unflavored yoghurt also shows mg of sugar? Does the amount of sugar vary with the cow feed- corn or grass....?Or is there such a thing as cow milk that has low or no sugar?

If you're biology or chemistry gifted, you prob think i'm crazy, but somehow, i can buy the fact that milk has protein or fat, but, maybe because i have been focusing on lowering both my salt and my sugar intake, i have been mentally treating them as the 2 opposites on a see saw. Along that line, i would think that if milk doesn't have salt content, them it also wouldn't have sugar content.....
If you have the patience, might you educate me about my faulty thinking? Thx much.

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  1. Milk has a sugar called lactose. Those people who cannot digest that sugar are lactose intolerant. Lactose is a disaccharide which sucrose ( white sugar) is as well.

    1. You've no doubt heard of lactose, at the least in terms of lactose intolerance. Well, lactose is a sugar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactose

      Generally speaking, the lower the fat content of cow's milk, the higher the lactose, and vice versa.

      24 Replies
      1. re: Caitlin McGrath

        Is that correct? So nonfat milk has MORE lactose than whole milk??

        1. re: nothingswrong

          Nonfat milk is whole milk with the fat removed, leaving the water, protein and lactose behind. Clearly a higher proportion of the calories in nonfat milk come from the lactose.

          1. re: paulj

            Okay, makes sense. I guess I never thought about it. I became severely lactose intolerant almost overnight when I was 13 or so. Now I can do dairy in small amounts (a serving of cheese, or a big spoonful of whipped cream) with no problem. But for some reason I've always had it in my head that lower-fat dairy would be easier to digest. Thanks for the info!

            1. re: nothingswrong

              You can probably do cheese (hard cheeses) and cream because they have minuscule amounts of lactose.

              1. re: fldhkybnva

                That's what my doc told me, re: aged cheddar. I tried it but it didn't work out so well.

                I still can't wrap my head around cream being easier than NF milk. I think when you're so lactose intolerant for so many years, the creamier something is, the more it worries you (like pasta dishes with cream sauce). Back in the day, I couldn't even eat a bite of ice cream, but like I said, I can do a serving of whipped cream now with no problem. This is all good to know!

                1. re: nothingswrong

                  A good rule of thumb for dairy products is the higher the fat content, the lower the sugar content. Most of the lactose is in milk is in the whey and a small amount is mixed up with the proteins. Clarified butter or ghee, where all the whey and protein solids have been removed and only the fat remains, has no lactose. Same for many aged, harder cheeses like medium to sharp cheddars, where a lot of the lactose goes when the curds are separated from the whey, and the rest is digested by microbial enzymes in the aging process.

                  A lot of people who have trouble digesting lactose also have trouble with other components in milk though. As paulj points out below, most mammals grow out of the milk-consuming phase after early childhood, so having trouble digesting unfermented milk as an adult is kind of normal. It's the fact that so many people seem to consume some other mammal's baby feed with no apparent problems well into old age that's weird.

                  1. re: ninrn

                    Interesting. I can't believe I've never read/heard any of this before, feeling a little stupid right now. To think of all the years I missed out on heavy cream and hard cheese!

                    1. re: nothingswrong

                      Heavy cream still has quite a bit of lactose in it. I'm thinking you're OK with whipped cream because there's so much air that you're getting very little lactose in a small portion. Many hard cheeses, though, are not lactose-containing foods. Look at the labels of Tillamook or Cabot sharp cheddar -- zero carbs. (One of my happiest discoveries in recent years!)

                      1. re: ninrn

                        Beware there...they can legally be labeled as zero carbs if less than 0.5 gram but in general, yes, most sharp cheeses are zero carbs. It's similar to an egg, a large egg has 0.36 grams carbs but unless you're eating the entire dozen it doesn't really add up to much.

                        1. re: fldhkybnva

                          That's good to know. But Cabot guarantees all their cheddars to be totally lactose-free and truly zero-carb.

                          1. re: ninrn

                            Really?! Why isn't this advertised more? You'd think with the recent food aversion trend, Cabot would be all over the airwaves as "guaranteed lactose- and carb-free."

                            Btw, you sure know a lot about dairy :)

                            1. re: nothingswrong

                              Like you (I think, from reading other posts) I'm dealing with a lot of health problems and just trying to keep my head above water by trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can (without going too much more crazy than I already am). Hugs, Ni

                              1. re: ninrn

                                Oh, I'm sorry to hear that! Yes, you are correct about me.

                                Well, you've done a great service to someone (me) today with your knowledge, so thank you.

                                Good luck with everything!

                              2. re: nothingswrong

                                Well, it's not really particular to their product, most other hard cheese are basically carb- and lactose- free, it's a feature of the cheese.

                                1. re: fldhkybnva

                                  I know, but I've been seeing other companies take advantage of their already-gluten-free or low carb products by now marketing them as "GLUTEN FREE WATER" or "LOW CARB EGG" etc.

                                  Americans like that kind of thing. "Oh, low fat chicken breast? MUST buy for my diet!"

                                  1. re: nothingswrong

                                    Trader Joe's advertised gluten free greeting cards a few months ago. At first I was utterly confused, and then I died laughing.

                                    1. re: ohmyyum

                                      I have been seeing the most ridiculous GF advertising here in L.A. "Gluten free fruit salad!" "Gluten free roast potatoes!" "Gluten free omelets!" And then the reason I said "gluten free water" is because I saw a flavored water the other day, with "GLUTEN FREE!!!!" on the label. I mean, come on.

                          2. re: ninrn

                            A simple way to think about it - during cheese making the protein changes into a network that traps the fat and liquid. Lactose is water soluble. Fresh (soft white) cheese still has a lot of that whey. But as it is pressed and aged, more of the whey drains away. Thus old dry cheese is mostly protein and fat, with little water and lactose left behind.

                            Serving portions of sharper, drier cheese are usually smaller. Contrast a serving of mozzarella with a shaving of Parmesan. Or squeaky cheese curds with a bite of extra sharp cheddar.

                            1. re: paulj

                              The most significant factor in reducing lactose in aged cheese is the action of bacteria/fungi. They are actively consuming lactose.

                              1. re: kmcarr

                                I suspected that was happening as well, but wasn't sure.

                      2. re: nothingswrong

                        Also cream is used in smaller quantities. You don't drink a cup of cream so the serving size amount of lactose is usually different just based on that alone.

                    2. re: nothingswrong

                      Low fat anything has more carbs (and sugars) than their whole fat/higher calorie counterparts.

                  2. re: nothingswrong

                    Sure. If you take out the fat, the percentage of each of the remaining ingredients (proteins, sugar, and water) are going to increase.

                  3. re: Caitlin McGrath

                    Just to confuse things more ... greek-style strained yogurt has less lactose than regular yogurt, because much of the lactose is dissolved in the whey that gets drained away.

                  4. Why would milk not contain sugar? Lactose = galactose + glucose.

                    1. Lactose ("milk sugar") is the culprit. It's part of whole milk and can be removed (usually with lactase).

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: ferret

                        Using lactase just changes the sugar to a simple sugar or a monosaccharide.

                        1. re: ferret

                          Lactase just helps with the digestion of the lactose - it doesn't remove it.

                        2. Anything ending in -ose, like fructose, maltose, lactose and dozens more - is a sugar, which is a chemical term for a certain class of carbohydrates (see, all those chemistry classes do come in useful!). Milks contain sugars because mammals need to feed their growing babies. Green plants contain sugars often as a by-product of photosynthesis: they provide their energy. Seeds like beans contain a lot of sugar (often in forms not readily digestible by humans, like oligosaccharides) to provide an energy source for the growing plant. Sugars are natural and organic - the problem we have in developed countries is that we consume too much of them, which, since they're usually easily digested, can lead to health problems.

                          Have you ever had caramel? Or dulce de leche? Caramelization is caused by the breakdown of the sugars in milk, making it (IMHO) more delicious than the original product.

                          1. Don't forget, milk was designed by nature to supply the calf with energy and basic building blocks for growth. Those little cuties need a lot of energy!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jill kibler

                              Yes, every (young mammalian) body needs milk.

                            2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milk#Nut...

                              gives the nutritional value of whole cows milk in some detail. It appears from that article that the fat content varies, the lactose content is relatively constant. It says about 40% of the calorie content of whole milk is from lactose.

                              1. there is nothing wrong with milk! the food industry's demonization of fat 30 years ago and now sugar/carbs is ludicrous. everything in moderation people! milk ain't gonna hurt ya

                                1. As others have said, milk is biologically designed to be the sole nutrient for a growing infant for the first period of life. So it needs to contain all the nutrients needed - fats, carbohydrates, sugars, etc.

                                  And milk does naturally contain sodium as well, if you look closely at the labels (about 5% of your daily recommended amount per cup). This makes sense too - mammals will die if they get too little salt, so it has to be there for the baby cow.

                                  As an aside - making fat free milk is fairly straightforward, because in its original form the fat rises to the top. It's actually kind of hard to keep it from doing that, which is why we get homogenised milk. Completely extracting the sugars from milk while keeping a product that somewhat resembles milk is, I suspect, a lot more difficult. Even treated lactose free milk has the same amount of sugar, they've just changed the form to a different type.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                    The various forms of cultured milk are lower in lactose. The bacteria convert it to lactic acid.

                                  2. Seriously, as a food caterer you never knew milk had sugar. As some have stated, milk has lactose and that is sugar, doesn't matter if the cow is on a low carb, gluten free diet either.

                                    1. I'm confused, milk has always had sugar, a lot of it. It's one of the reasons most kids readily drink it. Lactose...

                                      1. lactose is milk sugar - that's why it tastes a little sweet (if you're used to eating things without any sweetening added to them you can taste the sweetness in plain milk). But it's a natural sugar, not an added one, and the amount is relatively small... your body breaks it down in your digestive system.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Kajikit

                                          I don't think the 'natural' card is a good play.

                                          Most mammals loose the ability to digest lactose as they mature. That's true for many humans as well. The ability to handle milk as adults is the result of a genetic mutation, one that is common in cultures that developed a pastoral tradition (e.g. northern Europe). Else where lactose intolerance is common.

                                          Breaking a lactose molecule into simpler sugars requires a special enzyme. Breaking the sucrose molecule (white sugar) into its 2 simple sugar is simpler, and as far as I know, universal. The problem with sucrose is that it is too easy to digest.

                                          1. re: paulj

                                            Didn't they just say on Cosmos that the genes that control simple sugar metabolism are the same for all living things (including plants)?

                                        2. Milk has all the stuff that a young animal needs. Sugar, electrolyes (Na, K) fat and protein.

                                          1. Human breast milk has a lot more sugar in it than cow's milk.

                                            7 Replies
                                            1. re: JoeBabbitt

                                              While your point isn't really relevant to the OP's revelation, it's interesting. Here's a nice comparison of the nutritional content of various mammals http://www.parentingscience.com/calor...

                                              1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                Fascinating article. When I read this section all I could think about is the poor lab tech who had to milk the rats.

                                                Consider how humans stack up against these animals (values are given in percentage weight—all data from Jenness 1974).
                                                • Human: 3.8% fat; 1% protein; 7% lactose
                                                • Cow: 3.7% fat; 3.4% protein; 4.8% lactose
                                                • Rat: 10.3% fat; 8.4% protein; 2.6% lactose
                                                • Dog: 12.9% fat; 7.9% protein; 3.1% lactose
                                                • Rabbit: 18.3% fat; 13.9% protein; 2.6% lactose

                                                1. re: AreBe

                                                  The human brain -- which is a big energy hog -- runs on glucose. That's why people with low blood sugar have the symptoms they do (and can eventually become comatose). So it's not surprising that baby humans -- who are learning and developing at a tremendous rate -- need more sugar in their food.

                                                  It's really stupid to demonize any one kind of nutrient -- our bodies need all of them to function correctly! Moderation, moderation, moderation!

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    This is true to an extent. The brain has the ability to run on fuel other than glucose, but that requires some time in a low carb state. Our bodies don't actually need many carbs to function correctly.

                                                    1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                      In the case of milk, lactose is the only form of carb.

                                                      The point is not to get caught up in the "if too much is bad, then less must be better." It's better ... to a point. Balance is essential.

                                                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                      boy, ruth, i once asked you if you were also a biologist or chemist and you said no, but I must say, you SURE KNOW alot. Either you really remember from college courses and/or you do alot of scientific reading now......

                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                        So I have been demonizing the sugar/corn sugar industry lately because they have so successfully 'brainwashed' the food industry into believing that sugars are a necessary component in all prepared foods......
                                                        But maybe it's also true that the sugar industry is building on a pre-inclination that exists in the american public because of the natural sugars in mothers' milk?

                                                        i guess one would need to look at some world statistics re: sugar consumption by country, the sugar content in breast milk and formula, and more.....

                                                2. If you're really concerned about your diet, you should take the trouble to learn both about your body chemistry and food chemistry, and not rely on assumptions about what is "healthy" and especially based on stuff you read on the internet.

                                                  For example, unless you have sodium-sensitive hypertension (or are predisposed to it), there's no reason to lower your salt intake. Recent studies, for example, suggest that the current RDA for sodium is too low: http://www.torontosun.com/2014/04/02/...

                                                  Over time, most diets that have demonized one nutrient or another have proven to be anywhere from exaggerated to totally false (my poor grandparents gave up "unhealthy" butter for "healthy" margarine, which was of course loaded with transfats).

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler


                                                    this link above worked for me for that salt study article. when i tried your link, it said 'this article is no longer...'
                                                    thx much; i will research further.

                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                      I will admit, I had to laugh at the Toronto Sun being quoted for scientific information....

                                                      From a scientific point of view, you also need to read studies and particularly news reports of results knowing something about the process of research. Many of the results are initial results - they need to be consistently reproducible by different research groups, in large enough populations to be significant before you can take it as reasonably solid. (But of course you can't wait until then to publish, or you'll never get research money or a job). And you have to know your statistics to be able to interpret the results and how meaningful they are.

                                                      For food stuff in particular, dietary/lifestyle studies are notoriously difficult to conduct, partly because of time scales (a five year study is long by research standards, short compared to lifespans), and because a lot of the studies are uncontrolled - the researcher has to rely on people's reports of their food/drink/exercise/drug/sleep habits, and people lie a lot when you're asking them questions with moral implications.

                                                      And in general, if a diet tells you you can eat anything you want and as much as you want as long as you avoid carbs/fat/gluten/processed food/pesticides, they're full of it.

                                                      1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                        The study was a metastudy that looked at the results of many studies. Generally, metastudies are considered more reliable than individual studies precisely because they are looking at different research groups, samples, etc. and any biases tend to cancel out.

                                                        You're correct that diet and lifestyle studies are not very reliable, for the reasons you stated. In addition, they aren't very good at separating causation and correlation. For example, if studies find that being overweight is associated with Type 2 diabetes. Does that mean that the extra fat itself causes diabetes, or is it that some other factors (like poor diet and exercise) cause both the overweight and the diabetes?

                                                        When I see these discussions, I'm always struck by one thing: how many people make decisions about what they should and shouldn't eat based on half-baked ideas about what is healthy. Like the person who is lactose intolerant but doesn't know hard cheeses don't have lactose, apparently because he hasn't bothered to actually do any research into his condition.

                                                        Or people who cut back on sugar or salt because they have some vague notion that they aren't healthy. And yet, they don't know why they aren't healthy or any specific reason they should cut back or even what it is that is supposed to make them healthier about cutting back.

                                                        I think my favorite was the person who was concerned because it seemed like all food had calories, and calories were bad. Wha?

                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                          Being eternally curious AND being research-oriented, I can understand your points. But I can also imagine that some people , for whatever reason, may want to a) do what their doctor tells them because they trust that dr. and/or
                                                          b) live in a state of not-knowing about their body and health.
                                                          I myself live in a state of not-knowing -about the details of how my car works. I have a long history of trust with my mechanic; I do what he says, pay him, and don't
                                                          ask about the details. That way, I keep brain space for details that are important to me. I think most of us have some version of that practice in our lives.