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Milk vs Buttermilk - Health impact and Nutrition Comparison

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Milk
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Buttermilk

Introduction

Just by looking at two glasses containing milk and buttermilk, you may not be able to tell the difference. However, you cannot just substitute milk and buttermilk with each other, due to their individual qualities. In this article, we will discuss what separates these two dairy products and what they have in common, mainly focusing on health and nutrition.

Processing and Production

Milk is naturally produced in the mammary glands of female mammals. After milking the animal, the milk has to undergo processing, to improve qualities, such as shelf-life, taste, texture and consistency. The milk is pasteurized: heating the milk for a period of time, to kill the harmful bacteria and elongate the shelf life. Milk is later homogenized: put under pressure through small spaces, to make the texture consistent and stop the cream from separating. To achieve low-fat, reduced-fat or skim milk, it can be put through centrifugal separation. Other forms of processing, such as ultrafiltration, ultra osmosis, permeating, can be used to alter the properties of milk (1).

Buttermilk was originally the by-product of producing butter. After separating the cream from the milk and shaking or churning it for a while, butter granules start to form, and what’s left as a liquid is buttermilk. However, today, most commercial buttermilk is cultured. Cultured buttermilk is the pasteurized and homogenized milk that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria, giving buttermilk its distinct taste and texture.

Texture and Appearance

Both of these dairies are white liquids, however buttermilk is visibly denser and tends to leave residue on the glass or bottle in which it is contained.

Taste and Use

Both buttermilk and milk can be consumed raw or used in cooking, however, they are not interchangeable. Buttermilk is naturally more tart, acidic and dense. Buttermilk is often used for marinating meat and in dough making, as a leavening agent, to give it a lighter and softer texture. 

Varieties

 Based on the mammal it is from, milk and subsequently buttermilk can have different properties. The most common kind of milk used today is cow’s milk. Other dairy milks include buffalo, goat, sheep and camel milk, as well as lesser known milks, such as milk from donkey, yak, horse and other mammals. In recent years non-dairy or plant milk has also been gaining popularity. However, in this article we will focus on the most common cow milk and the buttermilk made from it.

Cow milk and buttermilk can have different qualities based on their processing methods. Centrifugal separation removes the fat molecules in the milk, making it nutritionally lower in fat. Based on the fat percentage there are four common kinds of milk: whole milk (3.25% fat), reduced-fat (2% fat), low-fat (1% fat) and skim milk, also known as non-fat or fat free milk (less than 0.5% fat).

Nutrition

For this article we have chosen to compare low-fat cow milk, fortified with vitamin A and D with cultured and low-fat buttermilk.

Macronutrients and Calories

Milk and buttermilk are composed of similar amounts of water, both containing 90% water

They are also equal in serving sizes, both being one cup. One cup of buttermilk weighs 245g, only 1g more than milk.

Calories

Low-fat milk and low-fat buttermilk are both low calorie foods.

Milk is only a little higher in calories, when compared to low-fat buttermilk. A 100g of milk contains 42 calories, whereas buttermilk has 40.

Protein and Fats

Milk and buttermilk are very similar in their fat and protein contents as well, however, milk is a little higher in both.

They are also very alike in protein and fat compositions. Both contain appreciable amounts of all essential amino acids.

The predominant fat type in milk and buttermilk, are the saturated fatty acids, followed by monounsaturated and then polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Buttermilk is lower in cholesterol.

Carbohydrates

Milk is also a little higher in carbohydrates. Both do not contain dietary fiber. Most of the sugars are made up of lactose.

Vitamins

Milk overall contains more vitamins when compared to buttermilk. Milk is higher in vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B5 and vitamin B12. Milk also contains vitamin D, whereas buttermilk does not.

On the other hand, buttermilk is richer in vitamin E and vitamin B1, and also contains vitamin C, which milk completely lacks.

The two dairy products are almost equal in the contained amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin K and the folate form of vitamin B9. 

Minerals

Milk and buttermilk are very similar in their mineral compositions. Milk is only a little higher in calcium, phosphorus and selenium, but also it contains a significantly lower amount of sodium. Buttermilk, however, is richer in iron.

The two contain nearly the same amounts of potassium, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and choline.

Glycemic Index

A mean of eleven studies, using milk from different countries and brands, has shown the glycemic index of milk to be equal to 31±2.

Even though a specific number for the glycemic index of buttermilk has not yet been calculated, we can assume the number to be close to but also smaller than 31.

The number for the glycemic indices for both milk and buttermilk falls in the low category.

Acidity

The pH value of milk falls in between 6.4 and 6.8 (2). This means the pH of milk is slightly acidic.

Based on the processing, it is natural that cultured buttermilk is much more acidic, with a pH value falling in the range of 4.41-4.83 (2).

Another way of measuring acidity is by looking at the potential renal acid load (PRAL). The PRAL value shows how much acid or base the food produces inside the body.

The PRAL value for milk has been calculated to be 0.1, making it slightly acidic, whereas buttermilk has a neutral PRAL value of -0.1

Weight Loss

When choosing dairy products on a weight loss diet, it’s important to pay attention to the fat content of the food. Low-fat milk and buttermilk can be easily found in most stores. Naturally, low-fat dairy contains less calories when compared to whole.

Milk and buttermilk have very similar macronutrient compositions. Milk is only a little higher in calories and fats.

However, paradoxically, studies have found that consuming higher cow-milk fat or whole milk was associated with a lesser risk of obesity in children, when compared to the intake of reduced-fat milk (3).

Other studies have similarly concluded that a high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity (4, 5).

Health Impact

Opinions often differ around the health impact of dairy products. Here, we will discuss the effects of milk and buttermilk on health, based on scientific evidence.

Health Benefits

Cardiovascular Health

A study concluded that dairy consumption was associated with a lower risk of mortality and major cardiovascular disease events (6).

Another research summarised that while full-fat dairy products did not increase heart disease risk, they did not decrease the risk either (7).

Regarding the concerns about high calcium intake, one study found that high intake of milk, and therefore calcium, does not increase the risk of acute myocardial infarctions (8).

There is evidence that the intake of milk and milk products overall may improve blood pressure, decreasing the risk of hypertension (9). 

Short term buttermilk consumption has been studied to reduce blood pressure in individuals with normal blood pressure (10).

Milk polar lipids, that can be found in buttermilk, can improve cardiometabolic health by lowering several lipid cardiovascular markers, mainly through reducing the absorption of cholesterol from the intestines (11). Consumption of buttermilk reduces levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood (12). 

Diabetes

Milk and buttermilk are both low glycemic index foods.

Higher intake of whole fat, but not low-fat, dairy has been associated with a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome and most of its component factors, as well as a lower risk of diabetes and hypertension (13).

Another study found a neutral or a moderate inverse correlation between dairy consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus (14, 15).

Fermented dairy products, such as buttermilk, were linked to a lower fasting plasma glucose and hemoglobin A1c. Overall, there is a strong and relatively consistent body of accumulating evidence indicating that dairy products may significantly reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and likely in a dose-response manner (16).

Cancer

Studies have shown an inverse association between milk consumption and the risk of colorectal and bladder cancer. However, due to the high calcium levels milk may also increase the risk of prostate cancer (17).

The intake of fermented dairy products, such as buttermilk, has significantly decreased the risk of bladder cancer, colorectal cancer and esophageal cancer (18).

Buttermilk is a rich source of a compound called milk fat globule membrane, that has been studied to have selective antiproliferative effects on cancer cells (19).

Downsides and Risks

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a disorder, during which  the sugar lactose does not get absorbed or digested through the intestines. Symptoms may appear within a few hours of consuming food that contains lactose, and include bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain.

The main sugar found in both milk and buttermilk is lactose, therefore, people with lactose intolerance should refrain from using these products. Milk is higher in sugars and, consequently, lactose, compared to buttermilk.

Diabetes

In contrast to the studies mentioned above, one research found that a high dairy consumption may be associated with a lower insulin sensitivity and, therefore, a greater insulin resistance, potentially increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes (20).

Cancer

Several studies have concluded that milk consumption has no association with an increased breast cancer risk. However, one study found high milk intake to be linked to an elevated risk of breast cancer (21).

A high consumption of whole milk may also increase the risk of prostate and ovarian cancer (22).

Summary

In summary, low-fat milk and cultured buttermilk are very similar in their macronutrient compositions. Milk is only a little higher in calories, protein, fats and carbohydrates. Milk also contains more vitamins, being richer in vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B2, B3, B5 and B12. Buttermilk, on the other hand, is higher in vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin B1. Milk and buttermilk have nearly equal amounts of minerals, except for sodium and iron, which buttermilk contains more of.

Milk and buttermilk are associated with an overall decreased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These dairy products can both be healthy in moderate consumption and the deciding factors are up to the preferences of the consumer.

Sources.

  1. https://www.dairy.com.au/products/milk/how-milk-is-made
  2. https://www.webpal.org/SAFE/aaarecovery/2_food_storage/Processing/lacf-phs.htm
  3. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/111/2/266/5680464
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3656401/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25159495/
  6. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31812-9/fulltext
  7. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2016/10/25/dairy-fat-cardiovascular-disease-risk/
  8. https://jech.bmj.com/content/jech/56/6/471.full.pdf
  9. https://gut.bmj.com/content/gutjnl/69/3/487.full.pdf
  10. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258425691
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23786821/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3289141/
  13. https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e000826
  14. https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/10/6/1066/5498098
  15. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/29/7/1579
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3719038/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22081693/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30374967/
  19. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305745174
  20. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jdr/2015/206959/
  21. https://www.aicr.org/news/a-study-suggests-milk-increases-the-risk-of-breast-cancer-but-aicr-experts-say-not-so-fast/
  22. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/9/1/e023625.full.pdf
Article author photo Victoria Mazmanyan
Profession: Yerevan State Medical University
Last updated: January 19, 2021

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Milk vs Buttermilk infographic
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Mineral Comparison

Mineral comparison score is based on the number of minerals by which one or the other food is richer. The "coverage" chart below show how much of the daily needs can be covered by 300 grams of the food
Milk
3
:
Contains less Sodium -76.8%
Contains more Iron +66.7%
Equal in Calcium - 116
Equal in Potassium - 151
Equal in Magnesium - 11
Equal in Copper - 0.011
Equal in Zinc - 0.42
Equal in Phosphorus - 89
Contains less Sodium -76.8%
Contains more Iron +66.7%
Equal in Calcium - 116
Equal in Potassium - 151
Equal in Magnesium - 11
Equal in Copper - 0.011
Equal in Zinc - 0.42
Equal in Phosphorus - 89

Vitamin Comparison

Vitamin comparison score is based on the number of vitamins by which one or the other food is richer. The "coverage" chart below show how much of the daily needs can be covered by 300 grams of the food
Milk
7
:
Contains more Vitamin A +317%
Contains more Vitamin D +∞%
Contains more Vitamin B2 +20.1%
Contains more Vitamin B3 +60.3%
Contains more Vitamin B5 +31.3%
Contains more Vitamin B12 +113.6%
Contains more Vitamin C +∞%
Contains more Vitamin E +400%
Contains more Vitamin B1 +70%
Equal in Vitamin B6 - 0.034
Equal in Vitamin K - 0.1
Equal in Folate, total - 5
Contains more Vitamin A +317%
Contains more Vitamin D +∞%
Contains more Vitamin B2 +20.1%
Contains more Vitamin B3 +60.3%
Contains more Vitamin B5 +31.3%
Contains more Vitamin B12 +113.6%
Contains more Vitamin C +∞%
Contains more Vitamin E +400%
Contains more Vitamin B1 +70%
Equal in Vitamin B6 - 0.034
Equal in Vitamin K - 0.1
Equal in Folate, total - 5

Vitamin and Mineral Summary Scores

Summary score is calculated by summing up the daily values contained in 300 grams of the product. Obviously the more the food fulfils human daily needs, the more the summary score is
Vitamin Summary Score
10
Milk
6
Buttermilk
Mineral Summary Score
13
Milk
15
Buttermilk

Macronutrients Comparison

Macronutrient comparison charts compare the amount of protein, total fats and total carbohydrates in 300 grams of the food. The displayed values show how much of the daily needs can be covered by 300 grams of the food
Protein
20%
Milk
20%
Buttermilk
Carbohydrates
5%
Milk
5%
Buttermilk
Fats
4%
Milk
4%
Buttermilk

Comparison summary table

Pay attention at the most right column. It shows the amounts side by side, making it easier to realize the amount of difference.
Milk Buttermilk
Lower in Sodium ok
Lower in price ok
Rich in vitamins ok
Lower in Cholesterol ok
Lower in Sugars ok
Lower in Saturated Fat ok
Lower in glycemic index ok
Rich in minerals Equal

Which food is preferable in case of diets?

ok
ok
is better in case of low diet
Milk Buttermilk
Low Calories diet ok
Low Fats diet ok
Low Carbs diet ok
Low glycemic index diet ok

People also compare

Comparison summary

Which food contains less Sodium?
Milk
Milk contains less Sodium (difference - 146mg)
Which food is cheaper?
Milk
Milk is cheaper (difference - $1.4)
Which food is richer in vitamins?
Milk
Milk is relatively richer in vitamins
Which food is lower in Cholesterol?
Buttermilk
Buttermilk is lower in Cholesterol (difference - 1mg)
Which food contains less Sugars?
Buttermilk
Buttermilk contains less Sugars (difference - 0.41g)
Which food is lower in Saturated Fat?
Buttermilk
Buttermilk is lower in Saturated Fat (difference - 0.085g)
Which food is lower in glycemic index?
Buttermilk
Buttermilk is lower in glycemic index (difference - 7)
Which food is richer in minerals?
?
It cannot be definitely stated which food is richer in minerals. See charts below for detailed information.

All nutrients comparison - raw data values

In the column "Opinion" we made some assumptions which could be controversial. For instance we are assuming that less saturated fats is good for you. Please ignore this column if you have your own opinion.We marked the nutrients, comparison of which we considered as not meaningful, as "N/A"
Nutrient Milk Buttermilk Opinion
Calories 42 40 Milk
Protein 3.37 3.31 Milk
Fats 0.97 0.88 Milk
Vitamin C 0 1 Buttermilk
Carbs 4.99 4.79 Milk
Cholesterol 5 4 Buttermilk
Vitamin D 48 1 Milk
Iron 0.03 0.05 Buttermilk
Calcium 125 116 Milk
Potassium 150 151 Buttermilk
Magnesium 11 11
Sugars 5.2 4.79 Milk
Fiber 0 0
Copper 0.01 0.011 Buttermilk
Zinc 0.42 0.42
Starch
Phosphorus 95 89 Milk
Sodium 44 190 Milk
Vitamin A 196 47 Milk
Vitamin E 0.01 0.05 Buttermilk
Vitamin D 1.2 0 Milk
Vitamin B1 0.02 0.034 Buttermilk
Vitamin B2 0.185 0.154 Milk
Vitamin B3 0.093 0.058 Milk
Vitamin B5 0.361 0.275 Milk
Vitamin B6 0.037 0.034 Milk
Vitamin B12 0.47 0.22 Milk
Vitamin K 0.1 0.1
Folate, total 5 5
Folic acid (B9) 0 0
Trans Fat
Saturated Fat 0.633 0.548 Buttermilk
Monounsaturated Fat 0.277 0.254 Milk
Polyunsaturated fat 0.035 0.033 Milk
Tryptophan 0.043 0.042 Milk
Threonine 0.143 0.141 Milk
Isoleucine 0.174 0.171 Milk
Leucine 0.319 0.313 Milk
Lysine 0.282 0.277 Milk
Methionine 0.088 0.087 Milk
Phenylalanine 0.174 0.171 Milk
Valine 0.22 0.217 Milk
Histidine 0.101 0.1 Milk
Fructose 0 Milk

References

The source of all the nutrient values on the page (excluding the main article the sources for which are presented seperately if present) is the USDA's FoodCentral. The exact links of the foods presented on this page can be found below.

  1. Milk - https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170872/nutrients
  2. Buttermilk - https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170874/nutrients

Data provided by FoodStruct.com should be considered and used as information only. Please consult your physician before beginning any diet.