Even among the tangled webs of nutrition science and speculation (can you say “soaking grains”?), safe milk has got to be one of the most difficult. I bet I have more people dash a quick email or leave an unrelated comment at a post to ask about safe milk than any other food.
Why all the hype?
First of all, it is awfully confusing. Milk is one of the only foods for which “organic” is sometimes not a good answer.
Second, we Americans drink a lot of it, in general. The pediatricians of the country always ask, “How much milk are they drinking per day? Is s/he getting 3 8-oz cups in?”
And finally, some types of milk are illegal (unpasteurized), and that always adds a fun element of mystique to a subject, yes?
I tried to help you egg labels a few weeks ago as part of the Go Local! Challenge (link no longer available), and I hope some of you have found a local source for well-raised eggs (or appreciated what you already had). Today, the many faces of milk. Here are the terms we’re going to have to shuffle through:
- Homogenized or umhomogenized?
- Pasteurized, UHT pasteurized, or Low-temp pasteurized?
- Raw milk/Fresh milk
- Whole, Skim, etc.
- Grassfed milk
- Organic milk
- rBST and rBGH free milk
Just to give you an idea of how far we’ve come from the natural world in some of our farming practices, I have to share a story of a trip to a hands-on farm with my kids this spring.
The well-intentioned and generally eco-friendly farmer was explaining why we were about to bottle feed the calves. She told all the children that the cows can’t give any milk to their calves, or there wouldn’t be any for us. (This was after describing the perfect food for the cows, an extruded pellet of corn, soy, silage, and other things coated in leftover fast food grease. A few of us moms were making eyes at each other across the pasture — which was made of sand — and about ready to bolt if the factory farming indoctrination got any worse!)
The reality of “olden days” farming was that the cow produced enough milk for everyone. The farmers used to say that a cow had four teats for a reason: one for the calf, one for the farmer and his family, one for the rest of the farm animals and one for the townspeople. I can’t get over how lovely and pastoral this image is. There is enough for everyone.
But what kind to buy?
- Whole, Skim, etc. The fat in milk is saturated, which has gotten a pretty bad reputation in the last 3-4 decades. I discussed the myths surrounding saturated fat last fall, and you can also read my family’s experience switching from a low-fat grocery list to a full fat dairy lifestyle. In general, I am not afraid of fat, so I buy whole milk and full fat dairy products. You need at least some fat to retain the fat-soluble vitamins. (More about skim milk and oxidized cholesterol.)
- Grassfed Cows are ruminants. Their stomachs are perfectly suited to harness the energy of the sun via grasses and turn it into usable energy. My stomach can’t do that. Can’t even come close. It baffles me a little bit that just because cows can eat corn, and even enjoy it according to some farmers, they’re fed corn constantly. My son can eat ketchup, and he likes ketchup, but if I fed it to him all day, every day, he wouldn’t be balanced or healthy. Same with dogs and chocolate. Just because the cows like something and eat it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
It makes my heart happy to see our farm’s cows out on pasture, looking like animals, acting their species, and living as God created them. It’s clear that they are “naturally raised.” If you’re buying milk at a store, it’s worth a call to the producer to see if the cows are on pasture at all, and if there’s actually grass in their pasture or just dirt. Even partly grassfed is a helpful step, nutrition-wise.Grassfed cattle, and their milk in particular, contains high levels of congugated linoleic acid (CLA), an UNsaturated fat, five times as much as corn/silage fed. CLA has a blue ribbon pinned on for lowering risk of death by heart attack and other heart-healthy statistical things. It helps you lose fat, gain lean muscle and improve your immune system (source).
This article (link no longer available), published in May of this year, cites more new research on the heart-healthy qualities of grassfed beef. The Harvard researchers had to go to Costa Rica to find enough people eating grassfed beef for their story!
- rBST and rBGH Both are bovine growth hormones to help the cow get bigger, faster. There is an interesting conversation on that here. This study showed no difference in the “composition of” organic, conventional, and no-rBST milk. In spite of all that, I have an inherent distrust of anything that mimics hormones, no matter how natural.
There are a whole lot of synthetic yet “natural” hormones, meaning people produce them in our bodies, clogging up our city water and affecting wildlife and young children.Too much estrogen from treatments and birth control pills has put our ecosystem off balance; what will extra rBST/rBGH do, regardless of whether or not cows make it in their bodies? Luckily many brands listened to the public and are now selling rBST/rBGH free milk, even big store brands like Meijer, Spartan, and Walmart.
- Organic How do you feel about your milk sitting on a shelf? If you buy organic milk, changes are you could put it in your pantry for a few months. Most organic milk, because it has to travel a distance between the field and your mouth, is “ultra-high temperature” (UHT) pasteurized. That means the food is raised to a very high heat, very quickly. There is nothing left alive, and thus it is shelf stable.
It also is said to be worthless to drink, or at best no better than conventional milk, so paying double or triple the cost of milk doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t buy organic milk at the store, unless it’s been low-temp pasteurized. Even then, it’s so expensive that I’d be better off buying another share of raw milk, because there are many more reasons than just “organic” that I choose raw milk from a local farm.
- Pasteurized, UHT pasteurized, or Low-temp pasteurized? Pasteurizing milk is a process that arose from a genuine need, that of urban cattle growers and unsanitary situations in the early 1900s. For pastured, grassfed, organic cattle whose milk is properly and carefully handled, pasteurization is likely unnecessary.UHT pasteurization is overkill (see above), and low-temp pasteurization is a nice option. Sometimes called “VAT” pasteurized, this milk is heated to the lowest possible temp to still kill bacteria. Some small organic dairies go this route as a great alternative to UHT milk.
- Raw/Fresh milk Some folks want to avoid pasteurization altogether. Unpasteurized milk is also referred to as raw milk or fresh milk, and there are various regulations concerning its sale. In some states, you can buy raw milk at a store, in others, you can only buy it for “pet consumption”, and in some states like mine (Michigan), in order to obtain raw milk, one has to own a cow. Some farmers get around this by selling “cow shares” wherein people can buy a certain share of the cow, then pay for its “boarding” in exchange for a gallon or two of milk per week.
This article discusses a study in which calves were given raw milk and pasteurized milk, and within months, the calves on pasteurized milk got sick and died. There is clearly a nutritional difference between raw milk (never cooked, straight from the cow) and pasteurized milk.
The book I read that really sealed the deal for raw milk in my mind was The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid.
- Some benefits of raw milk include:
- Over 60 living enzymes that are beneficial to digestion and immune function
- Proteins intact
- Probiotics, aka healthy bacteria, are alive in raw milk, just as in yogurt. Raw milk doesn’t go bad, it just sours and is still safe to drink.
- Many people have found through experience that raw, unpasteurized milk is more tolerable for people whose digestive system doesn’t handle pasteurized milk well, and other find that it improves allergies and other physical maladies. See some stories here.
- Vitamin A&D much higher, especially in grassfed cattle in the spring and early summer.
- See more health benefits of raw milk.
- Homogenized or umhomogenized? You guessed it – controversy on this one. Here is another post on it: The Real Story of Homogenized Milk, Powdered Milk, and Oxidized Cholesterol.
I also decided my family’s story of how we came to drink raw milk ought to be in a separate post. It is milk week, after all! If you’re interested in a list of best to worst milks, here is what milk to use for yogurt and here is a list of compromise vs. ideal foods, including milk. UPDATE: Here is my story.
There are affiliate links in this post. See my full disclosure statement here.