There is quite a bit of conflicting information out there about dairy, and it’s hard to figure out whether or not it’s good for you. Just a couple of months ago I believed fat free dairy was best. The only requirement I had was that the milk be rBST or rBGH free (artificial growth hormone linked to cancer and banned by all other developed countries by 2000 or earlier). Mostly because I didn’t know there were other options and opinions out there. I should point out that the majority of the advice that we’re given about food, is based on the assumption that we’re talking about conventionally processed food. After all, that is what most of us are eating. I’ve found that the same rules don’t always apply for food that is produced more traditionally. By traditional, I mean the way it was produced for many thousands of years prior to the 1940’s. Highly processed, mass produced, conventional food is a relatively new concept.

I’ve read a few books and countless articles that discuss the dairy issues. Even a very boring book called Building Bone Vitality that argues pretty convincingly that consuming large quantities of animal protein through meat and dairy may actually cause osteoporosis. We’ve been told for years that no or low fat dairy is best. We should eat more vegetables and less meat and dairy.  I’ve even heard that our body’s ability to digest lactose starts to diminish around age 4 or 5 and that’s why so many people are allergic or lactose intolerant. Some people even argue that milk is poison. I read this article in the Charlotte Observer last Sunday that basically says Big Dairy is spending all kinds of cash to promote dairy consumption, especially cheese. Just to get an idea of how confusing the dairy issue is, read some of the comments under the Observer article.

I’m currently reading Nina Planck’s Real Food and her view is interesting. She was a vegetarian for awhile (mostly because she was opposed to conventional farming and inhumane treatment of animals), but then converted back to her omnivorous ways when she realized that good quality, humanely raised, pastured meat and dairy was an option. She’s is what I would call a dairy purist.

Dairy purists believe that whole, unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk from pastured cows is the most complete food on the planet. I get it. The whole package makes sense to me – humane treatment of animals, better for the environment, more nutrient rich dairy for us. But it sounds too good to be true and for me, that’s a sign that something might be off. Here’s the catch. The purists wouldn’t even consider conventional milk to be real milk. To them, the dairy you find in most super markets doesn’t hold a candle to fresh, pastured dairy. Pastured dairy has the same benefits as pastured meat – it is higher in Omega 3’s, is a good source of CLA and contains more good fat, less bad fat, etc. Whether or not you care about any of that, is an entirely different matter. I personally don’t worry too much about buying whole fat versions when I’m shopping for dairy at my local grocery store, though I can tell you that I no longer buy fat free dairy (or fat free anything for that matter – another marker for sub-par food, in my opinion) and I buy organic when possible, but not always. Organic isn’t as important to me as pastured dairy. So lately I’ve been buying gallons of fresh whole milk and butter from a local dairy with pastured cows. Nutrition aside, I can tell you with certainty that this milk tastes better. It’s sweeter, creamy and silky smooth. My girls l.o.v.e it.

Pasteurization is the process in which milk is heated to kill bacteria. Most milk is heated to around 160 degrees (well below the boiling point) for 15 to 20 seconds. Some milk is ultra pasteurized, which heats the milk at a higher temperature (280 degrees) for at least two seconds.  The purpose is to extend it’s shelf life. What’s wrong with ultra pasteurization? Extremely high heat can obliterate food and nutrients. 280 degrees is well above the boiling point, which is 212 degrees. When milk is heated that much, it also may destroy some of the good bacteria that aids it’s digestion. When milk is ultra pasteurized, it’s no longer a whole food in my opinion. I believe that just like white rice, white flour or an apple without the peel, ultra pasteurized milk is highly refined. So I was disappointed to find that my Organic Valley milk from pastured cows (that’s a good thing) was ultra pasteurized. The longer shelf life is definitely evident. It smells and tastes like I bought it yesterday. Milk that doesn’t sour or rot after a couple weeks… kind of scary. Organic Valley does make milk that is not ultra pasteurized, but I’m not sure if it’s available at all stores.

The thing about unpasteurized (or raw) milk that usually sends people into a tizzy is the fact that it’s still illegal for human consumption in 15 states. It’s completely illegal in 11 of those states and only legal for pet food in 4 states (including my own state of North Carolina). Why is it illegal? Because in the early 1900’s, when most of these laws were put in place, dairies were a disgusting, unsanitary hot mess and many people got sick drinking raw milk. Today, some (but not all) conventional dairies probably aren’t much better. I would definitely want that milk to be pasteurized (maybe even ultra pasteurized). Quite frankly, I would never drink raw milk from any dairy that I didn’t trust. Raw milk has to be tested more frequently. Some farms will even test each batch. If you aren’t willing to do the leg work to find a trustworthy source, stick with conventional dairy.

While I pretty much agree that whole, unpasteurized, unhomogenized dairy from pastured cows is best (again, only from a trustworthy dairy), I’m a little skeptical of the idea that it can be consumed without limits as a “health food” or for medicinal purposes. Proponents of raw milk like to mention that it was used for medicinal purposes a century ago. It still is by the way. Today, I’d put in in the alternative medicine category. I don’t really have an opinion on it’s medicinal value to be honest. I personally wouldn’t use it to try and cure anything, but if it happens to cure something while I’m drinking it, great! Anyway, even pastured dairy is consumed in moderation around here. Though there are health benefits, it still contains fat and a lot of calories. (I do however, believe that saturated fat and butter and milk fat have an undeserving bad rap.)

What about cheese? Grocery stores are chocked full of cheese. Farmers have to do something with all the surplus milk fat left over from the skim and low fat milk we were, and still are demanding. Standing in the cheese aisle at Harris Teeter today, I counted 37 hooks on the top row alone. There were four rows, so that’s about 140 brands, varieties, blends and cuts of cheese. There’s even more cheese stacked on lower shelves and at the bottom of the refrigerator case, including an environmentally un-friendly, individually wrapped cheese product we like to call “American Cheese”.  You’ll also probably find ricotta, cottage, grated parmesan and specialty cheeses scattered around other parts of the grocery store. Not to mention all the cheesy snacks and goodies throughout the store. That’s a lot of freaking cheese!Most conventional cheese is the processed junk food version of dairy. It’s loaded with salt and preservatives and artificial color and ingredients that “prevent caking.” I’ve heard it’s saw dust, but that sounds more like an urban legend. If I remember correctly they actually use a mixture that contains cellulose. (Much better, right?) Whatever it is, I’m sure it won’t kill me… at least not right away. That’s a good thing, since I still buy it occasionally (tsk, tsk).

Butter, cheese and cream, of any kind, should not be used as a condiment or garnish.  When I’m eating butter for instance, I’m fully aware that I’m consuming a large number of calories and only a very small quantity of food and nutrients. So, if I’m going to do it, I want to taste it, and I want it to be the best (nutritionally) that I can afford. Sometimes that means regular conventional butter, sometimes it’s organic conventional butter, but whenever possible I prefer to have it fresh from a local dairy. AND I’d rather have one satisfying slice of toast slathered with butter, than two slices with barely a trace of it. I should also clarify that when I say we consume it “in moderation”, I don’t mean we rarely eat it. We eat (or drink) it regularly… and I don’t feel a bit guilty about it. We have been taught to fear food and I’m happy to say that I’ve deprogrammed that kind of thinking.

If you are interested in raw milk, you should start by learning about it from both the purists and opponents perspective. I recommend starting at westonaprice.org. If raw milk doesn’t interest you, then maybe you can still find a local dairy that sells fresh pasteurized dairy from pastured cows. Eatwild.com is a great source for getting more information and finding a local farm. You can probably even have it delivered. And as for the whole vs. skim debate. I choose whole dairy if its from pastured cows. However, if I’m buying conventional milk, it really just depends on what I’m using it for. Most times 2% is sufficient. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but fresh milk will probably cost more. Around here, conventional milk costs about $3 a gallon. Conventional organic could costs about $4 (on sale) but can get as high as $8 per gallon in the grocery stores (Organic Valley is $3.99 a half gallon at my HT). I pay about $6 for a gallon of fresh milk . Organic butter costs about $1 to $2 more per pound and fresh butter could costs $5 or $6 more than a pound of conventional butter. As I’ve said before, occasionally the bargain hunter in me wins and sometimes it’s just a matter of convenience. I’m confident that fresh, whole, raw dairy from pastured cows and a trustworthy dairy farm is best, but I’m no purist. I like having options.


About Michele
Wife and Mom of three girls doing her best to lead the family into a healthier lifestyle and evolve gracefully.

2 Responses to Dairy

  1. Pingback: Tea Time « HealthyMamma's Blog

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