What is Permeate-Free Milk?

Is permeate-free milk worth it? Photo: Thinkstock

What’s all the fuss about?

Until the television commercials and nightly current affairs exposés, not many of us had heard of permeate. Now this mystery additive has suddenly become the latest weapon in the milk wars, and the ‘permeate-free’ label is featuring prominently on the packaging of a range of different brands.

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But, what exactly is permeate?

For starters, it’s nothing to worry about. Permeate is simply a collective term for the natural lactose, vitamin and mineral components which are separated from fresh milk by a process called ultrafiltration. Because milk is a natural food (and tastes different from cow to cow) filtering the permeate out (before putting it back in) allows processors to regulate their milk so they can control the taste, protein and fat content.

While it sounds new, this standardisation has been happening since the ’80s, according to Dr Frank Sherkat, a food scientist at RMIT University. Yet milk brands are suddenly scrambling to promote ‘permeate-free’ milk, which means the permeate’s been filtered out completely, and not added back into the mix.

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Why the big fuss, then?

There are two schools of thought “permeating” the permeate debate. Dairy Australia’s stance is that adding permeate to milk as part of the standardisation process is no biggie, since permeate is a natural byproduct of milk. On the other hand, many manufacturers say that, because permeate-free milk undergoes less processing, it’s closer to the way it is on the farm—and its current popularity is simply a response to consumer demand for more natural products.

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So, is permeate-free better?

In a nutshell, no. Consumer watchdog group Choice found all milks meet minimum nutritional requirements for fat and protein content. So, in terms of your health, it makes absolutely no difference. And permeate or not, Food Standards Australia New Zealand ensures all milk products are safe and nutritious. So, try a glass of each, and see what you prefer. The choice is entirely up to you.