Milk is cheaper to buy today than it was 20 years ago, but the range on offer would baffle past generations.

Once a staple that arrived in glass bottles with silver caps, milk now comes in a range of varieties. Some, such as Anchor Mega Milk, Super Blue and Xtra come fortified with increased vitamin D and calcium.

The added benefits should be welcome news given that a Children's Nutrition survey found sugary drinks are fast replacing water and milk as standard drinking choices.

The survey found the switch from milk to soft drinks is contributing to a low calcium rates in many children.

Although 38 per cent of New Zealand children aged 5 to 14 said they drank milk daily and 34 per cent weekly, 17 per cent drank milk less than once a month or never.

The survey also found that 44 per cent of boys and 41 per cent of girls in the same age group drank Coca Cola or other fizzy drinks at least once a week instead of milk.

But nutritionists are debating the benefits of vitamin enhanced milk. Legally, milk companies can only add 1 microgram of vitamin D per 200mls of milk.

A lecturer at Massey University's Institute of Food Nutrition and Human Health, Dr Pamela von Hurst, said milk companies were "hog-tied" in terms of what they could and could not add to food.

"Vitamin D is critical for the absorption of calcium. There is a good argument that by having some vitamin D in the milk, vitamin and calcium absorption is improved," she said.

Von Hurst said a great source of vitamin D was sunlight, but because New Zealanders were staying out of the sun because of the risk of skin cancer, that source had been depleted.

Nutrition manager for Fonterra Brands Beverly Watson said the company would be watching developments overseas regarding how much vitamin D could be added to milk, before deciding whether to lobby the Government here.

Watson said the recommended daily intake of vitamin D was 5mg a day.

But von Hurst argued the 5mg a day level was the figure used for all people aged under 51, regardless of health or diet, and people should instead receive around 80mg of vitamin D a day.

With just 20 minutes in the sun producing around 400mg of vitamin D for the body, von Hurst said: "You've got to ask - how much do we really need and is 5mg a day enough?"

More choices for mums

Mums Claire Beatson and Wendy Zagalsky remember the days when milk was milk.

Now Beatson, 30, admits she's "overwhelmed by too much choice" at the local supermarket.

In her childhood, she would have cereal with blue-top milk, a glass when she got home from school and a Milo before bed. Now Beatson only has a trim flat white a day.

"When you're little, I guess milk is seen as a food," she says.

Beatson gives her 3-year-old son, Flynn, organic milk and her daughter, Sofia, is still on formula at 18 months old.

Zagalsky does the same for her 3-year-old daughter, Anahera, but is yet to decide what sort of milk her 16-month-old son, Zach, will have on a regular basis.

Zagalsky said she also remembered when the bottles were silver-topped full-cream milk.

"I remember when trim milk first came out, my mum had it and we weren't allowed to touch it. Back then it was like extreme and everyone else had the blue top," Zagalsky says.

Beatson and Zagalsky, 35, believe "less is more" and both opt for a basic organic blue top milk instead of the new varieties with added vitamins and calcium.

"I don't think more options are good," says Zagalsky.

"It just feels like you're being marketed to with clothes and food," Beatson says.

Good for your health at any price

Nutritionist Sarah Hanrahan says most people need two to three servings of milk, or milk-based products, a day.

But if you are confused by the array of milk at your local supermarket, her advice is to buy the cheapest.

"The budget-brand milk is absolutely fine."

According to a recent survey by budget advisers Oily Rag, 2-litre bottles of blue-top supermarket house-brand milk such as Home Brand, Pams and Budget sell for an average of $3.21, well below the $4.48 average price of the premium brands in the market place (Anchor by Fonterra and Meadow Fresh by Goodman Fielder Dairy).

But prices varied depending on where you bought your milk. Supermarket prices ranged from $2.58-$4.55, with an average price of $3.25.

Dairies crept up to $2.55-$5.20, with an average price of $3.40, and milk which was bought at petrol stations averaged $3.46 with prices ranging from $2.45-$5.10.

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