Milk. Raw vs. conventional. Skim vs. whole. Pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized. Are there antibiotics in milk? What about hormones? What does it mean if milk is homogenized? Well, it can be difficult to navigate all the different choices available and to feel like you are making the right choice for your family. So, let's try to tackle these issues one by one.
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Raw milk: First of all, what IS raw milk anyway? Raw milk is milk straight from the farm, not pasteurized or homogenized in any way. The choice to drink raw milk is somewhat controversial, as unpasteurized milk has not been heated in order to kill any potential harmful bacteria. However, proponents of raw milk will point out that if the milk has been handled safely, there is extremely little chance of becoming ill from drinking unpasteurized milk. And the health benefits abound: Raw milk has all the probiotics, vitamins, minerals and enzymes still alive and in their natural form. There are many stories of people who ditch the conventional milk in favor of raw milk and see huge health improvements, including the elimination of allergies. Kelly the Kitchen Kop has done a whole series of articles on milk, many of them on raw milk; I encourage you to read through these articles for a more in-depth view of this topic.
Also, please be aware that buying raw milk might not be legal in your state, so this is something you will need to research. For instance, I live in TN, and at this time in TN, it is illegal for a dairy farmer to sell clean, fresh raw milk from his farm directly to the public FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. There are only 2 ways to legally obtain raw milk in the state of Tennessee right now:
- It is legal for farmers to sell raw milk FOR PET CONSUMPTION only. It must be labeled as such.
- It is legal to obtain fresh raw milk through share programs. either cow shares, herd shares, or farm shares.
Be sure to research the laws in your state regarding the purchasing of raw milk.
Homogenization: This is the process of shaking the milk violently so that the fat globules are dispersed evenly throughout the milk, and no longer rise to the top. "One widely held popular theory singles out homogenization as a cause of the current epidemic of heart disease." (Read thorough article here.) If you can find non-homogenized milk (even if it is not raw milk), the fact that it has not been overly processed will only add to the health benefits. It will be very difficult to find conventional milk in the grocery store that is not homogenized though.
Antibiotics: The FDA does not allow antibiotics in milk that is sold for human consumption. So, we're all good there, right? Well, maybe and maybe not. Sick cows are treated with antibiotics (on non-organic farms), and there can be traces of the antibiotics found in the meat, as well as in the milk, at least occasionally. According to this article in the NY Times:
"Today, every truckload of milk is tested for four to six antibiotics that are commonly used on dairy farms. The list includes drugs like penicillin and ampicillin, which are also prescribed for people. Each year, only a small number of truckloads are found to be “hot milk,” containing trace amounts of antibiotics. In those cases, the milk is destroyed. But dairy farmers use many more drugs that are not regularly tested for in milk. Regulators are concerned because some of those other drugs have been showing up in the slaughterhouse testing"
So, I guess I could say I am not udderly convinced that there are no traces of antibiotics in conventional milk. The only way to avoid them is to purchase organic milk. I do still purchase conventional hormone-free whole milk at times, but I wish that I could feel a little bit safer about the antibiotic issue.
Hormones: First, to clear up a common point of confusion, if you were wondering about the difference between the labels of rBST and rBGH, there is none. Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST) is another name for recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). So, they are exactly the same thing. But what exactly is it? From the Organic Consumers Association: "rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) is a genetically engineered variant of the natural growth hormone produced by cows. It is sold to dairy farmers under the trade name Posilac. Injection of this hormone forces cows to boost milk production by about 10%, while increasing the incidences of mastitis, lameness, and reproductive complications." NO organic milk will have rBGH present, but other milk can come from cows that have been treated with hormones. Although the FDA asserts that there is no difference in the milk between the cows that have been treated with hormones and those that have not, most consumers at this point are dubious enough that they want to buy hormone-free milk.
The GOOD NEWS is that rBGH milk is easier to find than ever. "Thanks to consumer pressure, major retailers, dairies, and cafes, from Kroger to Starbucks, have committed to sourcing milk from rBGH-free cows. Several countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and the European Union have banned rbGH because of its impacts on human and animal health." So many, if not most, brands of milk are now rBGH-free! This doesn't necessarily apply to ALL dairy products, as there is still rBGH milk being produced in the U.S. But, many store brands of milk, such as Wal-Mart, Publix, Kroger, Aldi, and more, are committed to hormone-free milk.
Pasteurized vs. Ultra-pasteurized :Unless you can find raw milk, milk is going to be pasteurized. Some milk, especially organic milk is ultra-pasteurized. What is the difference? Pasteurization is the process of heating the milk to 140-160 degrees for a short amount of time, then rapidly cooled to destroy bacteria, molds, protozoa, and yeast. Ultra-pasteurization is the process of heating the milk to 275 degrees for a few seconds. This process kills ALL the bacteria in the milk, which unfortunately includes the GOOD bacteria. Ultra-pasteurized milk has a much longer shelf life, and technically doesn't even require refrigeration, a concept which is foreign to most Americans. That's why ultra-pasteurized milk is still sold in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. But, what that means, is that ultra-pasteurized milk is essentially "dead" milk. We actually WANT the good bacteria in milk, which helps promote good digestive health. We also want the proteins and enzymes in milk, and that is compromised by ultra-pasteurization. Here is a good article that goes more in depth on this subject. Basically, the only reason ultra-pasteurization is done is in order to increase shelf life and profits for the dairy companies, but it is not beneficial to our health.
Whole vs. Skim / 2%: Always, always, always buy WHOLE milk!! This is going to be a hard one for some people. What does your pediatrician tell you to give your children? Skim milk, right? And if you tell him that you are giving your child whole milk, there is a sad shake of his head and a reminder that children need to be given lower fat milk in order to prevent childhood obesity. At least that is my experience. But my children have always been so skinny that I figured they could use the extra calories. And guess what? They're STILL really skinny! Well, there is a reason for that.
According to this study on children at 2 and 4 years old, the children drinking the higher fat milk were more slim at age 4 than the children drinking the lower fat milk. Here's another article that details how "In 2005, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and other institutions studied the weight and milk consumption of 12,829 kids ages 9 to 14 from across the country. "Contrary to our hypothesis," they reported, "skim and 1% milk were associated with weight gain, but dairy fat was not." Here's details on another study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, where researchers monitored dairy intake in 19,352 Swedish women for 9 years. "Women who increased their consumption of whole milk consistently lost weight, whereas women who consumed the most low-fat dairy products gained weight!" WHY is this true?! It would make sense that lower-fat / lower-calorie milk would result in fat loss, right? Apparently not. This article explains, "It's becoming widely accepted that fats actually curb your appetite, by triggering the release of the hormone cholecystokinin, which causes fullness. Fats also slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, reducing the amount that can be stored as fat. In other words, the more fat in your milk, the less fat around your waist."
Here's a really thorough article by Butter Believer, that shows 6 Secrets You Don't Know About Skim Milk. Read it!
Another very important fact to know about skim or 2% milk. Because the cream has been removed, great lengths have to be taken to give the milk back its white, creamy, smooth texture. With low-fat or skim milk, this is usually done by adding back in powdered milk. Kelly the Kitchen Kop states it well: "Here’s the irony: dry milk powder contains oxidized cholesterol which causes your “bad cholesterol”/LDL to go up. So when you drink low-fat milk to supposedly protect your heart health, you’re actually harming your heart even more!" And because powdered milk is still technically "milk", it is not required to be listed on the ingredient list. From Wikipedia: Compared to fresh milk, powdered milk (and powdered eggs) are stated to be exceptionally high in oxysterols (oxidized cholesterol). The free radicals have been stated to have atherogenic (“causing atherosclerosis“) and carcinogenic (“causing cancer“) properties.
So basically: Skim milk makes you fatter. Skim milk contains powdered milk that harms your heart and potentially contributes to cancer. Stay away from it!
Organic: What does it mean for milk to be certified organic? I recommend this article, which details the subject in depth. Basically, for milk to be certified organic: the cows must be allowed access to pasture; the cows can only be given organic food (which means no GMOs or animal byproducts); no hormones are allowed in the cows; no antibiotics are allowed in the cows. All of that sounds great, right? Yes! Yes, it is!
But what is the catch? Well, MOST organic milk is subjected to ultra-pasteurization, rather than regular pasteurization. As detailed above, that means that even the good bacteria are destroyed. You CAN buy organic milk that is only pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized; it is just a little bit harder to find.
For the curious, here is a scorecard that rates 68 different organic dairy brands against a set of criteria central to true organic standards.
RECOMMENDATIONS (this list is by no means comprehensive, but is intended to give some examples)
ALWAYS choose WHOLE milk. If you can find raw milk, or organic non-homogenized milk, those will be your best choices. Otherwise, my ideal recommendations include milk brands that are organic and pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. This way, the milk has no chance of hormones or antibiotics, but is not so pasteurized that all the nutritional value has been removed.
- Raw milk ** organic, non-homogenized, grass-fed. (read up and make your own informed decision on this nutrient-packed but unpasteurized milk)
- Non-homogenized but pasteurized grass-fed milk
- Natural by Nature organic (only pasteurized available)
- Whole Foods 365 Organic (get pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. Check label)
- Horizon organic (get pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. Check label)
- Organic Valley (get pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. Check label)
- Trader Joe's organic (pasteurized is available)
O.K. / GOOD: (Again, buy WHOLE milk. These brands are homogenized and could contain trace antibiotics, but are rBGH free)
- Kroger brand
- Publix brand
- Wal-Mart Great Value brand
- Purity brand
- Aldi brand
- Trader Joe's
- Safeway - Dairy Glen & Lucerne
- Fred Meyer / Mountain dairy
- Market of Choice
- Many local independent food co-ops and natural food stores have a variety of rBGH-free products.
- Skim milk of any brand
- 2% milk of any brand
- Ultra-pasteurized milk (whether organic or not)
- Any milk where you are unsure whether it is hormone-free. Milk will usually be labeled "rBGH-free", "rBST-free", or "no artificial hormones"
Do you know of any other brands of milk that I should add to my list? Let me know in the comments below!