Milk vs Buttermilk - Health impact and Nutrition Comparison
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.
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).
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.
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.
Milk is also a little higher in carbohydrates. Both do not contain dietary fiber. Most of the sugars are made up of lactose.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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 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.
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).
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).
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.
Vitamin and Mineral Summary Scores
Comparison summary table
|Lower in Sodium|
|Lower in glycemic index|
|Lower in price|
|Rich in vitamins|
|Lower in Cholesterol|
|Lower in Sugar|
|Lower in Saturated Fat|
|Rich in minerals||Equal|
Which food is preferable for your diet?
|Low Calories diet|
|Low Fats diet|
|Low Carbs diet|
|Low glycemic index diet|
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All nutrients comparison - raw data values