The milk debate: Is permeate the right whey?

The milk debate: Is permeate the right whey?

By Ashleigh Perriott

Permea-what? The new advertisements by Dairy Farmers have left us all scratching our  heads in the milk aisle wondering if we’re playing Russian roulette with our health if we buy the cheaper milk we’ve always bought.

Before you have a melt down in the supermarket trying to choose between standard milk and permeate free milk, it’s worth noting that permeate is nothing new. In fact we’ve known about it since we were kids. Does the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey” ring a bell?

Whey is permeate and lately it’s been getting a bad wrap as a waste product from cheese making. In fact, many of us even spend way too much on other products made from it including protein powders, shakes and bars.

Permeate is essentially whey, but that’s not the whole story. Milk is put through a separator, it’s split into cream and skim milk. Some of the skim milk is then put through a machine where it goes through a process called ultrafiltration which separates the milk solids from permeate. The milk solids are then used to make cheese, high protein milk, and yoghurt.

So what exactly is in permeate? If we look more closely this food foe is a little more friendly. It’s simply water, lactose (natural sugar found in milk), B-vitamins and 20 per cent of the total protein found in whole milk.

In fact, Sohag University in Egypt conducted a study which found milk permeate was an essential source of electrolytes lost in human sweat. The scientists found that the two sports drinks they developed from permeate were equal to or better than Gatorade at replenishing electrolytes after exercise, due to the presence of calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus in the permeate.

But if the whole idea of waste products in your milk is leaving you feeling a little green, naturopath Lilliana Aitken-Jones believes that may be good for your health in more ways than one.

“Permeate in its natural state is actually green because it contains B-vitamins which are  really important,” Aitken-Jones says.

B-vitamins play a role in a majority of bodily functions, from the nervous system and mood, to muscle functions and energy production and even some hormonal functions. They’re water soluble and the body can’t store them so a little extra in your day may actually be a good thing, even if it means permeate milk is slightly more watery than its counterpart.

“As a naturopath I would always choose organic first,” Aitken-Jones says, but she doesn’t see much substance in the permeate debate.

“It’s just a bit of a marketing ploy, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any health risk.”

Getting enough calcium for her clients is more important than which milk they buy.

“For those who don’t have an intolerance, I recommend [milk] for children as they have higher calcium needs and women who are peri-menopausal who also have higher calcium requirements to prevent loss of bone density,” Aitken-Jones says.

Research by Utah State University has shown that milk with permeate removed has higher levels of minerals including calcium, sodium, phosphate and riboflavin. Calcium for bone strength is one of the major reasons we consume milk. So is Dairy Farmers right? Should we choose permeate free to make sure we’re getting enough?

Ruth Crawford, Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) and Charles Sturt University dietetics lecturer, agrees mineral levels are lower in milks with permeate added but overall, it wont impact on a person’s total intake.

“Given that whole milk usually has 1100-1200mg Ca/kg [calcium per kilogram] then it can be concluded that permeate milk has 30 per cent of the calcium content of regular milk,” Crawford says.

“The calcium provided by milk is significant even when diluted by permeate, which contains calcium at a lower level.”

After consumer uproar when news broke that permeate was being put back into milk, it was quickly defended by the industry as a method of standardising milk between the seasons. It’s addition ensured a nutritionally consistent product, particularly the protein levels. But we were still left wondering what that meant – do we get more or less protein in permeate milk?

Well, according to Crawford, it’s a similar scenario to the calcium content.

“From the Food Standards Code the minimum amount of protein is stipulated for full cream and skim milk as 3 per cent or 30g/kg – so while permeate may dilute whole milk it can only be done to a limited extent as the minimum amount of protein must be maintained,” Crawford says.

“Milks without permeate may have a higher protein content but the difference is not significant in the context of how milk is consumed. Dietitians describe a ‘serve’ of protein as that which provides 7g protein, so even milk with permeate equates to one protein serve,” she says.

This is good news for those looking for natural ways to get all the nutrients they need without the aid of supplements.

“Over the past twelve years I have tried every legal supplement available (proteins, pre/during/post workout supplements, etc). I have found that these are more of a placebo than an aid. You can get all the vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients from a well balanced diet,” personal trainer Adam Clift says.

“The argument between permeate free and permeate added milk products, I believe, is fruitless. Each product seems to have its own benefits for and against,” he says.

Clift recommends those wanting to achieve a healthy lifestyle should make a personal choice based on their individual nutritional needs.

“I would base my choice of products around my dietary needs rather than the monetary value i.e. if I was not consuming a sufficient calcium or mineral level I would buy the permeate free milk,” Clift says.

So far, according to the health experts, permeate and permeate free milks are on par with each other, so with similar amounts of calcium and protein per serve, how do they measure up on fat, sugar and salt content? “The People’s Watchdog” Choice weighed in on the issue.

In the tests they conducted Choice found that full cream milk had less than three grams of saturated fat, less than five grams of sugar and less than 60 milligrams of sodium per one hundred millilitres. The results were the same for reduced fat milks, which contained less than one and a half grams of saturated fat, less than six grams of sugar and 67 milligrams of sodium per one hundred millilitres, irrespective of their permeate content.

Choice's comparison results Source:

Research by the American Society for Nutrition has also found the natural sugars in milk promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut, aiding digestion. Milk, then, is an important part of a healthy diet, whether it contains permeate or not.

Ruth Crawford says it’s not the permeate content you need to look out for.

“All milk, irrespective of permeate content, is a good source of protein and minerals such as calcium. The main health issue for milk is the saturated fat content so selecting lower fat options is the most important consideration for Australians,” she says.

“Lower fat options are also lower in calories, so are also a good choice for someone trying to lose weight. There is research to show that including dairy foods in your diet can assist with weight reduction.”

Source: Cloverhill dairies diary

In a study by the University of Toronto, whey proteins which are found in dairy products reduced short-term food intake as participants felt fuller for longer. As a result, scientists found that including whey proteins in your daily food intake helped manage conditions including obesity, high blood pressure and type II diabetes.

Crawford, however, recommends that children’s needs are different.

“Children have higher energy requirements so usually need full cream/full fat milk,” she says.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating advises women and children eat 2-3 serves of milk or dairy each day, while men need 2-4 serves.

So, next time you’re in the supermarket and having a 5pm panic, just pick up the milk you enjoy drinking the most.

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