I love milk. It is nature’s perfect food, blending carbs, protein and fat with essential vitamins and nutrients. It can be drunk as is or processed into butter or yogurt or cheese or ice cream. It is a rare day when I don’t consume some kind of dairy product.
However, not all milk is created equal. There are differences in fat content (whole, 2%, 1%, skim), differences in flavors (chocolate, strawberry, coffee, etc.), and differences in processing (conventional, organic, grass-fed, local, pasteurized, homogenized, raw). The sheer variety of options can easily overwhelm, leading consumers to simply look for the lowest price without giving full thought to which variety is most nutritious!
Since the domestication of cows several thousand years ago, milk has, for the most part, been consumed “raw,” meaning it was not processed in any way. Cows were milked and the fresh milk was drunk. Whatever couldn’t be consumed quickly was preserved as yogurt or cheese or butter.
Pasteurization is a comparatively new practice. Pasteurized milk is heated to a temperature just below boiling for a very short amount of time to kill off any harmful pathogens. It is generally effective, however the process also destroys beneficial vitamins and nutrients.
Homogenization is the process by which fat particles are evenly distributed throughout milk. Milk naturally separates with the cream rising to the top and creating a thick layer which can be scooped off for other uses or stirred back in to the milk. When milk is homogenized, the fat particles are broken down in such a way that they stay evenly distributed throughout the milk and no shaking or stirring is required.
The difference? For me, it all comes down to taste. I grew up drinking 1% milk that was both pasteurized and homogenized. In high school I switched to skim. As I became more interested in unprocessed foods I switched to skim organic, then to whole organic (still pasteurized and homogenized) and finally to a local New York brand that was lightly pasteurized, but not homogenized. Now that I can get raw milk legally, I’ll be drinking that. The difference in taste between the pasteurized/unhomogenized stuff I drank in NY and the raw milk I just got isn’t huge and if I ever move to a state where I can’t get raw milk, I’d be happy going back. Or just buying a cow of my own…
When it comes to raw milk, it’s important to remember that quality matters. There are greater health benefits, but there are also some risks. The easiest way to avoid these risks is to do a little research. Healthy cows produce healthy milk. Visit the farm. Talk to the farmer. Find out how the cows are treated and how the milk is handled. If you don’t feel comfortable about it, stick with pasteurized milk.
That being said, when it comes to dairy products, I always buy organic or local. Dairy cows are no different than nursing mothers in that what mom eats/consumes gets passed on in her milk. If mom drinks a lot of coffee while nursing, she shouldn’t be surprised when her baby doesn’t sleep! That’s why so many medications have warnings to women or are pregnant or nursing. Conventional dairy cows are typically fed a diet of GMO soy and corn (or even gummy worms!). As herbivores, their digestive systems are designed for grasses, not grains. If a human ate nothing but grass (undigestible dietary fiber), we’d get sick because our bodies aren’t designed to digest it. The same applies to cows. Because they are fed an unhealthy diet that can and does lead to illness, they are regularly given preventative antibiotics which can and are passed on in their milk. This is one of the reasons we are starting to see more and more “superbugs” – drug-resistant bacteria. Certified organic dairy products are from cows that are not fed GMO grains (though they may still eat non-GMO grains) and they are not treated with antibiotics. While many local dairies are not certified organic, they are organic in practice. Visit the farm. Talk to the farmer. Find out for yourself.