Why fresh milk with 0% added sugar has worse Nutri-Grade than chocolate milk

We break it down.

Joshua Lee | March 25, 2023, 03:11 PM

It's been a few months since the roll-out of Nutri-Grade and to be honest, one of its biggest consequences, for me at least, is realising that so many packaged beverages out there that bear the Nutri-Grade labels "C" and 'D".

There are so few healthy beverage options out there that contain little or no added sugar.

Raise your hand if this conversation is somewhat familiar:

"Wah, so hard to find Nutri-Grade 'A' or 'B' drinks."

"Go home drink water lah."



There was something else about Nutri-Grade that caught my eye: The curious difference between the Nutri-Grade rating for fresh milk and chocolate milk.

Take a look at these two packs of milk from CP-Meiji.

Doesn't chocolate-flavoured milk contain more sugar? I mean, it states right there on the packaging that it contains five per cent added sugar.

So why is it rated "B" when its fresh milk counterpart (which contains no added sugar) has been slapped with a "D"?

Does this mean that fresh milk is unhealthier than chocolate-flavoured milk?

You'll find that this difference applies quite consistently across different milk brands, if you take a look at this table below which I created after a post-dinner excursion to FairPrice.

Generally fresh milk is given a lower Nutri-Grade rating compared to its flavoured counterpart.

The most jarring would probably be the difference between Farmhouse's Dark Chocolate-Flavoured Milk and its Fresh Milk.

The Dark Chocolate-Flavoured Milk has been endorsed with the Health Promotion Board's Healthier Choice logo (which is only reserved for products that attain an "A" or "B" Nutri-Grade, by the way) while the Fresh Milk has been given a "C" rating --- even though the former has more sugar.

Just for kicks, I also decided to throw in Coke (the Original Taste Less Sugar version) and Pepsi, which are what typically comes to mind when we talk about unhealthy sugary drinks.

Both contain much more added sugar than fresh milk but have been given the Healthier Choice logo.

What's going on? Had I unwittingly uncovered an industry-wide conspiracy involving Big Dairy and Big Beverage?

Actually, no. The answer turned out to be quite googleable.

Very simple explanation

According to the Health Promotion Board, the Nutri-Grade rating system assesses beverages' sugar and saturated fat content

That would explain why fresh milk has a worse rating than flavoured milk.

After all, fresh milk contains a high amount of saturated fats (the CP-Meiji 4.3 Deluxe Milk that kick-started this entire endeavour boasts a minimum fat content of 4.3 per cent which gives it a creamier taste).

It has so much fat that it's typically recommended for kids who are underweight.

This also explains why fresh milk, on a whole, would get a worse Nutri-Grade rating than low-sugar Coke or Pepsi, which, if you realised, have been stealthily replacing their full-sugar counterparts on our supermarket shelves for some time now.

Many soft drinks on supermarket shelves today have been formulated to contain less sugar. That's why you will spot the Healthier Choice logo on many of them. Image by Joshua Lee.

People do think it's due to sugar alone

But what's really interesting is why this misconception exists.

According to my "comprehensive" survey of three colleagues, there is a general misconception that Nutri-Grade assesses only sugar content.

One colleague explained that as someone who drinks only non-sugar beverages like oolong tea, her drinks typically comes with "A" or "B" Nutri-Grade ratings.

And so, when she saw "D" grade labels on beverages like fruit juices, she assumed that it's because they're much sweeter.

Actually, way back in October 2019 when the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced its plans to launch a nutrition label scheme for pre-packaged, sugar-sweeteed drinks, it was clear that the rating system would not be determined by sugar alone.

Nestled within the press release was this little line:

"[the drinks] will be assigned a summary grade based on their nutritional quality, in which sugar will be a main but not the sole determinant."

Still, the entire endeavour was framed as a move to "reduce Singaporeans' sugar intake" from packaged drinks.

Even today, if you look at the Nutri-Grade label, I think you can see why people might think of it as a "sugar label":

And so, the ensuing confusion about whether Coke Zero is actually healthier than full cream milk.

Okay, so what's the point?

It's easy to make the wrong assumption that fresh milk is any less healthy than flavoured milk or Coke or Pepsi, if you're basing your comparison on Nutri-Grade alone.

But of course that isn't true.

Take a look at Pepsi. Aside from the fact that it is a source of empty calories, it needs artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium and sucralose to maintain its sweet taste.

Photo by Ja San Miguel on Unsplash

Some artificial sweeteners, particularly caloric sweeteners like isomalt and sorbitol, can produce laxative effects or cause gastric symptoms when consumed excessively.

Artificial sweeteners are also not good for children as their taste preferences are developing. Children who consume too much of it might develop an unhealthy taste for sweet things.

Conversely, fresh milk might be much higher in saturated fat but it is recommended for certain segments of the population, such as young kids, those who are underweight, as well as elderly folks. This is because fresh milk is a convenient source of calcium, protein, and other important nutrients.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The point is that it's not meaningful to define foods as simply healthy or unhealthy based on their Nutri-Grade alone.

It is just one tool that we use, alongside the Healthier Choice symbol, and nutrition labels, to make informed choices about the food that we eat.

As a colleague said: "If you're serious about nutrition, you shouldn't just look at Nutri-Grade."

Top images: FairPrice.