The Best Milk for Your Health

When shopping for milk at your grocery store you may experience a form of shopper’s paralysis – uncertain about which milk is the best pick for you. Do you want organic? Antibiotic-free? Hormone-free? Grass-fed? Pasteurized and homogenized? What does all of this mean?

Before hitting the supermarket shelves, the cream portion of the milk is separated from the watery whey portion. Later, the fat is added back in to make either 1%, 2%, or full fat (whole) milk. Required by law, milk is also pasteurized (and sometimes homogenized) to make it safe for consumption. Pasteurization refers to heating the milk to extreme temperatures to kill off any undesirable bacteria that may be present (how this gets in the milk in the first place will be discussed later). Homogenization refers to an industrial mixing method used to incorporate the fat into the whey portion of the milk to produce an even and desirable consistency that will not separate.

However, the industrial method of dairy production from cow to household fridge in America is controversial. Topics up for debate include the use of hormones and antibiotics, differences in nutritional value, and the option of choosing raw milk over the standard pasteurized, homogenized milk.

Let’s start with hormones. Centuries ago cows made on average 3-4 gallons of milk a day. Today, dairy cows make three to four times that. How is this possible? The answer is through selective breeding, high protein feed, and the use of rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin – a synthetic form of the bovine growth hormone (BGH) that cows produce naturally). An increase in growth hormone leads to an increase in milk production. In 1993, the FDA approved rbST to be used on cows to increase their milk production. Neither rbST or BGH are harmful to humans because they are not active in our bodies. However, there are indirect effects associated with the use of synthetic hormones that everyone should be aware of.

Most dairy cows receive biweekly injections of rbST causing skin breakdown at the injection site, which may lead to infection. In addition to this, because the cows produce more milk under the influence of the synthetic hormone rbST, their utters become overworked and may also become infection (known as mastitis). Utter infections can lead to the release of pus (so gross) in the milk supply (making unhealthy animal treatment a non-issue since we have good ole pasteurization, right?).

The presence of infection requires the use of antibiotics to fight off the disease. Antibiotics given to cows can get into the milk supply and eventually into your digestive system where they can kill off friendly bacteria that live in your intestinal tract. Without friendly bacteria present in your digestive tract to fight off harmful bacteria, bad bacteria can infect and proliferate.

Finally, treating cows with rbST leads to an increase in insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in milk. Without getting into the nitty gritty science of it all, cow and human IGF-1 are identical and your body cannot differentiate between the two. Therefore, it is possible that you may absorb the IGF-1 in milk and it will end up in your blood stream. High levels of IGF-1 in the blood have been linked to increased risk in both prostate and breast cancer.

So how can you ensure that hormones like rbST are not being used in the milk you drink? Choosing organic milk will minimize any lingering doubts. In order for milk to have the USDA Organic seal, it must meeting the following qualifications:

  • The cow must be fed organic feed (this does NOT necessarily mean it is grass-fed).
  • The cow must have access to pasture, fresh air, sunlight, shade, and shelter (however, the meaning of “access” is subject to interpretation).
  • No hormones can ever be used on the cow.
  • No antibiotics can be given to the cow unless used to treat disease (in which case there are then a number of rules about how long a farmer must wait after administering the antibiotics before using the cow’s milk for sale.

Going back to rule #1: the cow must be fed organic feed. Organic feed does not necessarily mean grass. Most non-organic and some organic raised cows are fed a cheap, high protein feed containing soybeans to increase milk production. This feeding method leads to problems among dairy cows including mastitis, sterility problems, liver problems, and a decreased lifespan. It has even been thought that the high protein feed may alter the kind and quality of protein in the milk thus contributing to the rising number of milk allergies in America. The bottom line is that the proper food for cows is green plants – specifically grass. Grass-fed cows produce a better quality milk with a higher vitamin and mineral content. So when choosing organic milk, make sure that the label also specifies that the cows were grass-fed to ensure you are getting the most out of your milk.

And what’s the big deal with raw milk? Raw milk is milk that comes directly from the cow – without pasteurization or homogenization. It is believed that the heat from pasteurization alters the protein of the milk promoting rancidity and destruction of vitamins. It is estimated that about 50% of vitamin C 80% of water-soluble vitamins, and 100% of vitamin B12 is lost in the pasteurization process. Pasteurization reduces mineral availability; it destroys naturally occurring enzymes that aid in the absorption of calcium, chloride, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium. It also alters lactose (milk sugar) making it more readily absorbable in the body, putting a strain on the pancreas to make more digestive enzymes and may be linked to diabetes. Pasteurization also decreases the natural flavor of milk so chemicals are added to decrease odor and restore the taste.

While raw milk is a great option, it is not commercially available in all US states. If you choose to drink raw milk, make sure you know the animal care standards and sanitation practices of the milk producers. It is also important to ensure that the cows are not raised in confinement and are clean, healthy, grass-fed cows that have been tested free of tuberculosis and brucellosis.

To find sources of raw milk near you, visit

If you don’t have a reliable source of raw milk, choose pasteurized, non-homogenized milk from grass-fed cows. Try to avoid non-organic milk from cows of unknown origin as well as ultra high temperature pasteurized organic milk (285*F or 141*C).

The fat content of your milk is a personal preference. While most people aim for the milk with the least fat (skim milk) for dietary purposes, choosing full fat (whole) milk actually has quite a few health benefits of its own. The butterfat in milk actually helps the body utilize the calcium and protein found in the whey. Milk fat is an excellent source of naturally occurring vitamin A and D; synthetic vitamin D is added to all commercial milk regardless of fat content. Butterfat is also rich in short and medium chain fatty acids that are easily absorbed and protect against heart disease and strengthen the immune system.

As you can see the world of milk is extremely diverse in today’s modern world. The milk you choose to drink is based on your own personal preferences and beliefs.

What kind of milk do I choose to drink? As much as I would like to say I drink raw milk, I honestly don’t have easy access to it nor do I have the time to go out of my way to get it. Therefore, I go with the second best option; I buy local organic, grass-fed, pasteurized but non-homogenized milk from Whole Foods. They carry a number of local varieties including milk from family-run organic farms in both Indiana and Wisconsin. I periodically buy whole milk as a treat and to reap the nutritional benefits, however most of the time I stick to the fat-free (skim).

What kind of milk do you drink? Does anyone in Chicago have a reliable raw milk resource?

Sources: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, What to Eat by Marion Nestle,
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  1. Great informative post! You say that vitamin D is added to all commercial milk regardless of fat content. This doesn’t apply to raw milk, right? It’ll have lower vitamin D concentration. Could you say a little more about the vitamin D addition (e.g., why is added? is it required by law?). Giving links back to the vitamin A and vitamin D entries of your vitamin of the month series would be useful too, to save the search.

    • There are really two answers to this question. First, when milk is processed, the fat portion (the cream) is separated from the water portion (the whey). Fat soluble vitamins A and D are located in the fat portion of the milk while water soluble vitamins such as vitamin B are found in the whey portion. Later the fat is added back to the whey to create 1%, 2% or whole milk. If no fat is added back to the whey (as is the case with fat-free skim milk), then the fat soluble vitamins are lost; so synthetic vitamin D is added back to it. Secondly, most vitamins and minerals are denatured and lost during the pasteurization process where milk is heated to extreme temperatures. Therefore, dairy manufacturers add synthetic vitamins back into the milk after it has been commercially pasteurized to account for the nutrient loss. Raw milk on the other hand is not pasteurized, nor is the fat portion separated from the whey. Therefore there is no loss in natural vitamins and minerals in raw milk.

  2. Fascinating, thanks for the response.

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