Sugar free milk is either milk that has had its natural sugars chemically removed or product that is labeled “milk” but is actually made from entirely non-dairy, sugar free sources, including soy and various nuts. The milk produced by all animals naturally contains at least some sugars. Low-fat milks contain the least amount of sugar, but even these are not completely sugar-free. For diabetics and others looking to remove or severely curtail sugar intake, sugar free milk, though often hard to find, is usually one of the only milk options.
In nature, milk is designed to provide baby animals with the nutrition they need to grow and develop. Milk is, accordingly, not a sugar free food. To the contrary, it is usually high in fats and sugars both. Commercially produced milk is often processed to remove at least some of the fat content, but sugars — which usually take the form of lactose — are always present. Removing them is usually a matter of chemical isolation or evaporation.
It is not usually easy to find sugar free milk. Chemical sugar removal is usually quite costly, and in most places the demand is too low to justify production. A number of manufacturers create lactose-free milk that is made by adding a lactase enzyme to regular milk. This removes the lactic acid that upsets individuals with lactose intolerance, but does not actually remove the sugars. It just breaks them down and alters their chemical composition to make them more digestible.
A more successful place to look for sugar free milk is among evaporated milk products. Evaporated milk and powdered milks are milk that has been dehydrated and is usually sold as either dry crystals or concentrated liquid. Milk tends to lose a lot of sugar during dehydration, but even still, only a very few of these products are truly sugar free. Consumers should carefully read labels, too, as many powered or evaporated milk products have sugar substitutes or preservatives added.
Many of the milk products marketed to lactose intolerant people and diabetics are not really milk at all. Soy milk and almond milk are two common examples. These “milks” are creamy, milk-like beverages that are made by condensing natural, protein-rich elements into liquid form. Soybeans and almonds are usually rich in natural sugars, however, which means that even without adding sugar, these milks are unlikely to be sugar free. Some manufacturers sell sugar free milk, but these are not usually the most common varieties and can be hard to find.
Just the same, these milks are almost always low sugar. The sugars that these milk substitutes contain is usually significantly lower than the sugars present in regular milk. This means that they are usually still a fine milk for diabetics and others looking to adopt a low carb diet. Individuals adhering to a strictly sugar free diet usually simply avoid milk and milk substitutes.
Is There Sugar in Milk?
The answer to this question depends on the type of milk. Also, it is a twofold question as queries related to sugar often intend to elicit the amount of added sugar in a given food product as opposed to overall sugar content.
Milk can be classified as animal-based or plant-based. Cow’s milk is the predominant variety of animal-based milk and is commonly referred to as “regular milk.” On the market, regular milk is categorized by fat content: whole, reduced-fat (2%), low-fat (1%) and skim. Regardless of fat content, regular milk contains the same amount of sugar—calculated at 12 grams per 8-ounce serving. This sugar naturally occurs in the form of lactose, so there is no ADDED sugar in plain milk. Lactose is what gives milk its slightly sweet taste.
Flavored milks, such as chocolate and strawberry, have both natural and added sugars. An 8-ounce glass of chocolate milk contains an average of 24 grams of sugar, split evenly between natural and added sugars. Despite the boosted sugar content, a joint policy statement made by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association asserts that the organizations do not consider flavored milks to be “sugary” drinks. Other popular kid-friendly beverages are much higher in sugar content. Even those with no added sugar, such as 100% juice products, have 20 or more grams of sugar, compared to plain milk’s 12 grams.
Sugar levels in plant-based and other nondairy milk beverages vary based on the source and production methods, with a range of natural sugar to added sugar ratios. Manufacturing brands, in response to the needs of individuals with diabetes, have created “sugar-free” milk products. These varieties are not entirely devoid of all sugars; they undergo a process that breaks down lactose into two sugars—glucose and galactose—that are safer for those with diabetes. They are also more easily digestible for people with lactose intolerance.
Contrary to its reputation, sugar is not all bad. Natural sugars, found in food sources such as fruit and dairy, are combined with a multitude of nutrients that are essential to a healthy diet. In milk, specifically, the simple sugars serve important health purposes. Glucose is the primary source of energy for the body, including the brain. Galacatose, found in dairy and breastmilk, promotes the development of the central nervous system in babies and young children. Partially digested lactose contributes to gut health by feeding the good bacteria. Lactose that goes undigested improve’s the body’s ability to absorb essential minerals.
Conversely, added sugars have no nutritional value. In addition, overconsumption of processed sugars can contribute to a myriad of health issues, including tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Which Milk Has the Least Amount of Sugar?
Sugar is a substance known by many names, such as fructose, galactose, glucose, sucrose and maltose. Flavored animal-based milks, as well as many plant-based options can include one or more of these incognito sugars. A product’s ingredient list tells which sugars are added, if any. Actual quantities of total and added sugar are shown in the nutrition facts of the product label.
Some products that are promoted as “healthier” selections, in reality, contain relatively high levels of sugar. The following list ranks the sugar content of 10 regular milk varieties and dairy-free alternatives in order from highest to lowest, per 8-ounce serving:
- Chocolate cow’s milk (skim): 23 grams (sugar added)
- Chocolate soy milk: 19 grams (sugar added)
- Vanilla almond milk: 15 grams (sugar added)
- Unsweetened rice milk: 13 grams
- Plain cow’s milk (whole, 2%, 1% and skim): 12 grams
- Unsweetened vanilla soy milk: 9 grams
- Sweetened coconut milk: 6 grams (sugar added)
- Unsweetened oat milk: 5 grams
- Unsweetened coconut milk: 3 grams
- Unsweetened almond milk: 0 grams
Sugar-free milk is somewhat of a misnomer. There are very few products available on the market that can be accurately designated as zero sugar. Here are 3 brands that actually do contain zero grams of sugar:
Maple Hill Organic Zero Sugar Milk
Launched in 2021, Maple Hill Creamery’s ultra-filtered milk is the first cow’s milk is the first to be produced without using natural sugars or added sweeteners. The company utilizes a soft-filtering process to remove the sugar, lactose, and carbohydrates from the milk.
Califia Unsweetened Almond Milk
The ingredient list for this plant-based milk product contains 8 items, none of which are sugar.