On Milk

iStock_000008600268XSmallUpdated 3.3.2010.

Given the interest in my Whole Foods Initiative, as I like to call it, I thought I’d write some posts about different foods that we are changing in our house and give you a Good-Better-Best scenario, to help simplify some of the choices out there.  The biggest thing that kept me from overhauling our family grocery list for several years was the sheer amount of contradicting information that is out there.  I’m going to do my best to help you wade through it, but please don’t take what I say at face value.  I’m telling you what we’re doing based on what I’ve been reading and learning, but I’m by no means an expert or a medical professional.

That said, let’s tackle milk.

Whole milk is healthier than low-fat or skim.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that I’ve discovered so far in my whole foods journey is that whole milk is healthier than low-fat or skim.  I’ve always stayed away from other low-fat dairy products, mainly because they don’t have any flavor.  But we did drink 2% milk because I always thought it was healthy, and I like 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.  According to In Defense of Food, powdered milk is often added to low-fat or skim milk, and powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol, which is bad news.  And also, your body needs the fat in whole milk to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.

Nina Planck writes 45 pages on Real Milk, Butter, and Cheese in her book, Real Food: What To Eat and Why, and I only wish I could cut and paste the whole thing right into this blog post.

She explains that whole milk contains a long list of healthy vitamins and minerals that are good for our bones, skin, hair, eyes, teeth, nerves, and even digestion.  But 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 the same as the natural A and D vitamins that were lost in the processing.  Synthetic A and D are thought to be harmful in excess.

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

All milk is not created equal.

Then of course, there is a big difference between the traditional milk my great-grandfather drank fresh from his family cow 100 years ago and the industrialized milk you can buy at Giant.  And this is where the waters get muddy.

Traditional milk comes from cows that are raised outdoors and eat mostly grass, whereas industrial milk comes from cows that have been raised indoors and fed mostly corn, grain, and soybean, often with a chaser of synthetic hormones to help them produce more milk than is natural.  Milk and dairy products from traditional grass-fed cows have more nutrients than industrial milk, particularly the healthy Omega 3 that we hear so much about.  (And we aren’t getting nearly enough.)

What About Pasteurization?

Then there is the never-ending debate about pasteurization.  While pasteurization kills harmful bacterias such as E. coli, it also destroys vitamins and healthy enzymes and bacterias (such as the enzyme that digests lactose — which is why I can drink raw milk but not pasteurized milk.)

And please beware of ultra-pasteurized milk. This process of heating the milk to extremely high temperatures extends the shelf-life even more than regular pasteurized milk, but it also means that it has pretty much destroyed anything beneficial in the milk.  For more on this, see this post on the different types of pasteurization.

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.

Proponents of raw milk claim that it is healthier than pasteurized because it retains all of its natural vitamins and enzymes, and it has a long list of health benefits.  Some even believe it to be medicinal.  Documented cases of illness due to raw milk are few.  But raw milk can be expensive and difficult to come by, and many believe that it’s too risky to drink raw milk because of how quickly bacteria multiplies.  However, the proponents of raw milk claim that it has its own built-in safety mechanisms, and as the raw milk ages, it doesn’t go bad so much as it goes sour, at which point you can use it for other purposes.

Of course there are plenty of naysayers, but I believe that drinking this raw milk is safe, and I was thrilled to discover that I could drink it without a Lactaid tablet!  I keep coming back to the fact that raw milk nourished people for hundreds and thousands of years, and as long as I have confidence that the farm that produces my milk adheres to the proper safety standards, I prefer to drink my milk the natural way.  The raw milk I purchase comes from a local farm, and I personally interact with the farmer and his mother who runs their store.

In my opinion, the next-best thing to raw milk is whole milk from grass-fed cows that is low-temperature pasteurized and not homogenized. Natural By Nature is a brand sold at my local whole foods store.  Unfortunately it is homogenized, but I can’t find a pasteurized, non-homogenized option near me.  My mom, the lucky ducky, does have a source of local pasteurized, non-homogenized down in her neck of the woods.

Please note:  My choice is subject to change at any time.  It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, after all.  For now we are drinking raw milk that comes from one of two farms in our area.  When I can’t get it, I buy the Natural By Nature that I mentioned above.


So here is the long and the short of it.  Or as my mom is fond of saying, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Good — Whole milk that is pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) and hormone free.  If cost is an issue, or if you don’t have access to anything else, I believe this is an adequate alternative, although most of the real food advocates will disagree with me on this.

Better — Pasteurized, organic whole milk (organic milk is always hormone free.)

Best — Pasteurized, organic whole milk from grass-fed cows.  OR.  Raw milk from grass-fed cows, if you are comfortable with that.

And there you have it.  For even more about milk, here are a few articles that may be of interest:

Healthy Milk: What To Buy — Food Renegade

Healthy Milk — Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

Top 10 Reasons to Drink Raw Milk — Cheeseslave.

10 Reasons to Drink Your Milk Raw — Nourished Kitchen.

Raw Milk Vs. Pasteurized MilkArmchair Science, London.  This is an interesting article written in 1938, advocating making the raw milk clean rather than pasteurizing it.