Here’s What the Colored Lids on Top of Your Milk Jugs Mean

published Apr 19, 2018
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

There are few things in life more jarring than accidentally getting the wrong milk. “Wrong” is subjective, of course, but if you’re used to a low-fat milk and accidentally wind up with whole, it’s basically like taking a big glug of heavy cream. And if you’re used to the comparatively thick, creamy mouthfeel of whole milk, having to put skim in your morning coffee will ruin your entire day.

It turns out that getting the right milk is usually pretty easy, however, because the dairy aisle generally follows a color code that will get the proper milk into your hands without much thought or even bottle-reading.

According to Today‘s Erica Chayes Wida, milk bottles are generally color-coded according to type. Somehow I have been buying milk my entire life and never noticed that. Sure, I knew that my milk labels were always a certain color, but somehow I just figured that was because of the particular brand of milk I was buying. I didn’t realize that the milk caps of other brands generally followed the same color scheme.

The color-coding is not actually a rule, and companies can make their milk bottles whatever color they want. The fancy glass-bottle companies can make theirs all the same, and Horizon is free to make all their cartons bright red, even if it does mean I grab the wrong carton at least one time out of every 10. (Eventually I will learn to read all the cartons before picking them up, but it has not happened yet.) But in general, the color of a milk carton lid will give you a good idea of what’s inside of it.

The two most reliable dairy aisle colors are red and brown. Brown is for chocolate milk, obviously, and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to pick up chocolate milk by accident. But according to Today, a red cap or label is the most universally agreed-upon color for whole milk bottles among most milk sellers.

According to Today’s survey, blue caps most commonly indicate two-percent milk, and most brands use green caps or labels to indicate one-percent milk. Some even use white, so if you like skim and are getting an unfamiliar brand, you should stick with reading the labels.

Did you know about this color-coded system?