Milk: What to Buy {Deciphering the Lingo}


Milk is one of those food products that we don’t really need to live on, but it is integral to most of our diets . . . especially those of us who have young kids.

As far as how the cows are raised and what they eat, there is nothing new to discuss here as far as the animals that supply our milk. The same rules apply to milk that apply to beef, and you can read my article on Beef: What to Buy if you need a refresher.

The key is this: In nature, cows graze on grass. Their 4-part stomach is designed to digest such roughage. Feeding them grain makes them sick. Also, many factory farms feed their cows hormones to stimulate more milk production, and those growth hormones pass through to the milk that they provide. No one wants that!

So ideally we would all drink milk from grass-fed cows that are raised on pasture and not given antibiotics or growth hormones.

But, as you may have guessed, it’s not that simple.

For one thing, milk from exclusively grass-fed cows is almost impossible to find in the conventional grocery store… although that won’t stop the marketing department from plastering photos of happily grazing cows on the milk cartons.

You can, however, make sure to avoid growth hormones by drinking only milk that is labeled rbST and rBGH free. (source)

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) refers to bovine growth hormone that is made in a lab using genetic technology.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a synthetic (man-made) hormone that is marketed to dairy farmers to increase milk production in cows. It has been used in the United States since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, but its use is not permitted in the European Union, Canada, and some other countries.

Deciphering the Lingo

So you’re standing in the grocery store, staring at the milk selection, and you’re faced with the following choices: pasteurized milk, ultra-pasteurized milk, skim milk, whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, organic milk, lactose-free milk, and on it goes. What the heck!??? How do you know where to begin choosing the best milk for your family?

Let’s start by breaking down the lingo.

Raw Milk

Raw Milk SignRaw milk is the term for milk in its natural state, directly from the cow, no pasteurization, no homogenization, no nothing. Straight, pure, all natural, unadulterated milk. Raw milk is illegal in many states.  Some states, such as my own, regulate raw milk and allow it to be sold with a license.  You can find it at some small health food stores, and of course you can buy it directly from the farm. It is highly regulated because it is such a delicate substance and tends to be easily contaminated by bacteria. In fact, my family got campylobactor from drinking raw milk a few years ago.

Why risk it? you might ask.

Good question.

Proponents of raw milk claim that it is healthier than pasteurized milk because it retains all of its natural vitamins and enzymes, which are destroyed during the pasteurization process. Milk, especially drunk in its raw state, has a long list of health benefits.  Some even believe it to be medicinal. There are documented cases of people living on raw milk, as it is a complete food.

Personally, I find pasteurized milk to be hard on my digestive system. It causes me to have debilitating stomach aches. But raw milk digests just fine. It is clearly a different food. It also behaves differently when cooking with it, as I discovered from our years drinking raw milk.

After we got sick, we decided to stop buying raw milk, although sometimes in a weak moment, we will buy a gallon. It tastes sooooo delicious.

My take on the issue is this. (And this is PURELY my personal opinion after years of research and drinking all kinds of milk.) Raw milk is superior to pasteurized, factory-produced milk in both flavor and nutritional value, however, it simply wasn’t designed for mass production. Milk is a delicate food that is highly susceptible to contamination, and the more it is handled, the more chance there is of it coming into contact with bacteria. If I had a cow in my backyard, I’d drink raw milk without reservation because I could ensure that it is handled properly. But relying on others to do so gets dicey. I still do sometimes take a chance, but it makes me nervous.

I realize, of course, that we can get sick from any food, but some foods are more susceptible than others. Raw milk is one of those foods.

Pasteurized vs. Ultra-Pasteurized

Buying milk

All milk in the conventional grocery store is pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized. Most people don’t even realize there is a difference, but there is. I avoid ultra-pasteurized milk products like the plague. You know how raw milk grosses some people out? Ultra-pasteurized milk grosses me out. It doesn’t even taste like milk. And you can’t even make cheese and yogurt with ultra-pasteurized milk. It won’t work. So you KNOW there’s a difference.

You know those cute little milk cartons that don’t need to be refrigerated? That is because they have been ultra-pasteurized.

People, listen up. Real food rots. If it doesn’t go bad, it isn’t food.

What is pasteurization exactly?

Pasteurization is the process of heating the milk to slow microbial growth and make it last longer.

There are basically two methods of pasteurization: HTST and UHT.


HTST stands for High Temperature, Short Time. On the label, it will usually say Pasteurized.This process brings milk to no more than 165° F and holds it there for only 15-20 seconds. Shelf life of HTST milk is 2-3 weeks.


UHT stands for Ultra-High Temperature.  It is also called Ultra-Pasteurized. This process heats milk to 280° F for a minimum of one second.  The purpose is to make it last longer — it has shelf life of 2-3 MONTHS — but by doing so it basically kills off most of the nutritional value that existed in the fresh milk and makes it even harder to digest.

I stay far, far away from ultra-pasteurized dairy products. I won’t even buy half-and-half for my coffee if it’s ultra-pasteurized. Ick. 

What about organic milk?

wegmans-organic-whole-milkAs with everything else, an organic certification gives you some measure of comfort. Organic milk, according to the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, comes from cows that must follow these guidelines:

  • At least 30 percent of the food they eat must be grazed at pasture during a grazing season of at least 120 days
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones may be used
  • All feed must be organic
  • No meat or poultry by-products can be in the feed

It is also a lot harder to find organic milk that is pasteurized (vs ultra-pasteurized) although Trader Joe’s carries it, and the Wegman’s store brand organic milk is pasteurized as well. 

It is important to note that while conventional dairy cows may be treated with antibiotics, those cows must be pulled out of production and any testing that shows signs of antibiotics in the milk requires the entire shipment to be destroyed. So if you trust the dairymen, then you really don’t need to worry about antibiotics in milk at all.

As for growth hormones, while it is still legal in the United States to give growth hormones to cattle, most farms don’t. It is very easy to find conventional milk labeled

It all depends on what milk options you have in your area and what you’re willing to pay, but I don’t think conventional milk is the worst thing we can buy.

Guess what? We’re not done yet!

Because we haven’t even discussed whole milk vs skim vs 2%. And I think this is a valuable distinction as well.

The Villanization of Whole Milk

When I started my research into whole foods and traditional diets, one of my most surprising discoveries was that whole milk may actually be healthier than skim or low-fat milk.

We had always stayed away from low-fat dairy products such as sour creams, yogurts and cheeses, mainly because they don’t have any flavor. But we did drink 2% milk because I always thought it was healthier, and I liked the taste.


What I’ve learned is that when they take out the fat (and this goes for all dairy products, not just milk), they have to use additives to preserve the original body and texture of the product.

Also, when you remove the cream to make low-fat milk, you lose the butterfat that aids digestion and vitamin-absorption, and you also remove the vitamins A and D, which is why low-fat and skim milk are fortified with SYNTHETIC vitamins A and D, which are not assimilated in the same way as the natural A and D vitamins that were lost in the processing. 

Therefore, we are now drinking whole milk only in our house. And I continue to buy whole milk cheese, sour cream, yogurt, etc.

Will Drinking Whole Milk Make Me Fat?

As far as weight loss and dieting is concerned, I realize that switching to whole milk seems counter-intuitive. Whole milk has more fat and calories than skim or 2% so it must be more fattening. Right?  WELLLLLL . . . Maybe, maybe not.

There have been some recent findings that suggest the contrary. For instance, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who regularly drank whole milk and other full-fat dairy products gained 15%-30% less weight over a ten year period than those who consumed low-fat dairy products.

As far as kids are concerned, this Time article is very interesting: Skim Milk Is Healthier Than Whole Milk, Right? Maybe Not.

The fact of the matter is, we are learning new things every day, and some findings are contradicting the old school of thought.  Unfortunately, we’ve been indoctrinated with the low-fat mentality for so long that it’s going to take time to re-educate the general population. Of course, I’m not saying we should all go out and gorge ourselves on every fattening thing we can lay our hands on.

Unfortunately, the food itself is not the only thing that’s changed in the last 100 years.  Portion sizes have grown exponentially, we eat on the run, we snack in the car and in front of the TV and at our desk and virtually everywhere but the kitchen table with our families, and we lead much more sedentary lives than our forefathers.

So yeah, if you keep eating all kinds of junk and switch to whole milk, you may gain weight. But in the context of a healthy, balanced diet, drinking whole milk in moderation should not be a problem.

And if you’re still not convinced, go ahead and buy the light stuff for you. But I definitely believe whole milk is healthier for growing kids.



Homogenization is the process of breaking down the fat globules in milk so that they stay integrated rather than separating as cream. (When you buy raw milk, the cream rises to the top, so you just give it a shake and serve.) All milk at the conventional grocery store is homogenized. If you shop at Whole Foods or natural co-ops, you may be able to find some non-homogenized options.

I have read that homogenization may cause arteriosclerosis and heart disease, but I’ve also seen that theory debunked by some pretty reputable sources. While I don’t trust homogenization, and it seems like just one more way we are making our food more unnecessarily processed (just shake the milk jug, for goodness sake!), I don’t go out of my way to find non-homogenized milk.

My mom has access to a local farm that does use the low-heat pasteurization AND provides a non-homogenized option. If I had access to that milk, I’d certainly buy it. But around here, it isn’t one of my options. It’s definitely not a hill to die on, as far as I’m concerned.

Whassup with Lactose?

LactaidLactose is an enzyme found in dairy products that is hard for the human body to digest. Lactose intolerance is a common issue for humans as we age.

You can buy Lactaid or other lactose-free milks, but they’re usually fat-free. The other option is to take a Lactaid tablet before drinking milk (that is what I do) or you can avoid milk/dairy altogether. It really isn’t necessary to consume dairy products at all. You can get the same nutrients from vegetables.

Good, Better, Best

The topic of what milk to drink is hard to break down into the good-better-best categories with so many variables at play.

At the end of the day, my first priority when buying milk for my family is whole milk that is “from cows not treated with rbST.” 

Beyond that, I try to avoid all ultra-pasteurized dairy products.

If I can find all that plus organic, grass-fed, local, all that jazz too? Awesome. If not, I don’t sweat it.

Join The Conversation

6 Responses

  1. Wow! This is truly one of the most comprehensive, well-balanced posts I’ve read on this subject. I’m a big raw milk fan, but I totally agree that it was not meant for mass distribution. That is a great point. I love our co-op and completely trust our farmers (They are an Amish family in your state, actually) They do distribute a lot of milk but for some reason, the Amish just do it the right way. I gave up Facebook for Lent, 🙂 but Sunday, I will link to this article! Thank you for this informative post!

    1. Curious what farm you use!

      I’ve bought from Amish, Mennonite and a veterinarian with no religious affiliation, lol. I really don’t think it matters. It was a Mennonite farm that had the tainted milk we bought, and they are wonderful people, totally owned the problem and had no idea how it happened b/c they do take every precaution. The fact is, it CAN happen, no matter how careful they are and how much you trust them. 🙂

      1. Very true. I guess the Amish don’t have an edge on any other farmer. 🙂 I’ve been getting milk from them for a while, but I know there is always a risk. If my family had gotten as sick as yours, I would be much more suspicious of raw milk. Isn’t Trickling Springs in PA? Sometimes I get their low-heat pasteurized milk.

        1. And even so… we still buy it sometimes. 🙂 It makes me nervous, though. I think the Trickling Springs dairy is related to Natural by Nature? It is too far from us, we can’t source their milk. I thought N by N was low temp pasteurized but yesterday I was looking deeper into their site, and it is regular 165 degree pasteurized. (Low temp is 145.) It’s still not ultra, but still, makes me wonder why I’m spending so much on it. I think I might go with Wegmans Organic. I think it’s cheaper.

  2. Thank you for ALL this hard work, JL. It’s a huge help, and it makes me feel less guilty for not being able to get raw milk or organic or whatever. I avoid the hormones like the plague, and the ultra-past. Good advice!

  3. I am wanting to make the most informed decision I can when it comes to choosing which milk to select. Could you give me a list of your sources? I’ve read through your article, which seems to have been derived from a reference point but I don’t see it listed. I want to compare your information to that which I have read in this blog post…https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/is-ultra-pasteurized-milk-bad/ In your post you wrote, neither cheese nor yogurt can be made from ultra-pasteurized milk, and yet, it was in my search to make yogurt at home that I found the post blog I listed. Thanks for pointing me in the direction you took.

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