What Is Ultra-Filtered Milk, and How Does It Pack So Much Protein?

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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It seems like every day, there’s a new milk alternative hitting grocery store aisles. The trend’s been leaning toward plant-based stuff, but ultra-filtered milk—the latest liquid darling—is setting itself apart by relying on real deal dairy.

And on some pretty significant nutritional claims: Labels on popular brands like Fairlife tout way more protein than the traditional stuff and none of the lactose, a welcome change for the more than one in three Americans who have difficulty digesting regular dairy.

But are all these nutritional perks legit? We connected with dairy and nutritional experts to break down everything you need to know about ultra-filtered milk before you moo-ve it (sorry) to your cart.

What actually is ultra-filtered milk, and how does it compare nutritionally to the regular stuff?

The “ultra-filtered” name comes from the special process needed to produce it—and yes, as the term suggests, it essentially concentrates it, Dennis D’Amico, PhD, an associate professor of animal science at the Agricultural Biotechnology Laboratory at the University of Connecticut, tells SELF. Basically, a pressurized filtration system does the work of separating and removing smaller compounds like lactose, minerals, water, and some water-soluble vitamins like B (but the fat soluble ones, like A and E, are retained and concentrated). “The resulting milk has more protein, more calcium, and less sugar,” he explains.

The difference in nutritional makeup is probably the biggest distinction between ultra-filtered milk and regular milk. Depending on the brand—and how much they concentrate their product—ultra-filtered milk can have anywhere from 13 to 18 grams (g) of protein per cup, along with 380 to 500 milligrams (mg) calcium compared to traditional milk’s eight grams and 300 mg per cup, respectively. It also has less sugar: 6 to 9 grams compared to 12 grams per cup.

What’s more, the pressure filtration method removes nearly all of the lactose, the sugar in milk that can cause symptoms like bloating, gas, or diarrhea for folks who have difficulty digesting it. But most companies take an additional step to make sure that not even trace amounts remain in what they sell—that way, they can label it as lactose-free, says Dr. D’Amico. They do this by adding an enzyme called beta-galactosidase (a.k.a. lactase), which metabolizes any leftover lactose so that your body doesn’t have to, Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF. Without that added enzyme, she says, there’s always a possibility that small amounts of lactose could still be in there, so only consider options with the official lactose-free label if you’re concerned.

Important: All this doesn’t mean that ultra-filtered milk is safe for people who have a dairy allergy rather than an intolerance. That’s because ultra-filtration doesn’t remove the milk proteins (like beta-lactoglobulin) that trigger such conditions—in fact, Dr. D’Amico says, it concentrates them.

How else is ultra-filtered milk different from regular milk?

Aside from those nutritional differences, ultra-filtered milk isn’t that dissimilar from what you know, Harbstreet says. If you drink it on its own, you may notice that it seems thicker (thanks to its concentration) and tastes slightly sweeter because of the already metabolized lactose. But if you’re using it in cooked recipes like mac and cheese or pancakes, or anywhere else you normally use milk, it’s unlikely you’d notice a difference, she says.

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