Got (Real) Milk? written by Cari Snell of Caring Nutrition

All milk is not created equal. In particular, the industrial milk we see on the supermarket shelves today is not the same milk it was one hundred years ago. With many people experiencing allergies, stomach upset, skin reactions and more with today's milk, the big question seems to be, "Is milk even good for you?" My answer? "That depends...which milk are we talking about?" 

Today there are many choices to choose from. Raw, homogenized, non-homogenized, skim, 1%, 2% and whole. But before I get to which milk one might consider choosing when shopping at the market, a little science and history first...

Traditional milk is from happy cows allowed to forage on grassy fields not from cows held in large industrial barns being fed GMO corn and soybean feed. Traditional milk is better for you as it contains more vitamins (not synthetic ones) and tastes delicious. Some forms of milk, like yogurt and kefir, are more easily digestible, even for those who think they may be lactose intolerant. And as for the cows, farmers who switch from industrial, confinement, grain based diet dairies to grassy pastures see their vet bills shrink. Why? Because cows that eat grain exclusively suffer from acidic stomachs that lead to ulcers. But that's a no brainer. The more complicated question revolves around the consumer health.

Some critics believe cow milk is designed for baby calves, not humans, which is true, but this does not mean that the human system can not, or should not, handle and benefit from milk. Like human breast milk, cows milk is nutritionally complete. It is made up of carbs, protein and fat and humans are equipped to digest all three. As a complete protein, milk contains all the essential amino acids in the proper amounts. The carbs in milk provide energy while the fats are a good balance of saturated and unsaturated fat. The fats in milk are essential as they allow the body to digest the protein and assimilate the calcium. And with a note to the importance of saturated fats, they are particularly easy to digest because bile from the liver is not required to emulsify them first unlike polyunsaturated fats, which the body needs to store. This means saturated fats are used rapidly by the body and burned for energy.

And what about the good things in milk?
•Complete protein builds and repairs tissues and bones
•Vitamin A for healthy skin, eyes, bones and teeth
•Vitamin D to aid calcium and phosphorus absorption for bones and teeth
•Thiamine to help turn carbs into energy
•Riboflavin for healthy skin, eyes, and nerves
•Niacin for growth and development, healthy nerves and digestion
•Vitamin B6 to build body tissues, produce antibodies and prevent heart disease
•Vitamin B12 for healthy red blood cells, nerves, digestion and the prevention of heart disease
•Pantothenic acid to turn carbs and fat into energy
•Folic acid to promote the formation of red blood cells, prevent birth defects and heart disease
•Calcium to make strong bones and teeth. Also aids in the contraction of the heart beat, as well as aids in muscle and nerve function
•Magnesium for strong bones and teeth
•Phosphorus for strong bones and teeth
•Zinc for tissue repair, growth, and fertility

Which method  of processing do we see in today's dairy?
 Industrial and traditional food processing methods are definitely different. Traditionally fermented dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt have many nutritional and bacterial benefits. For example, the bacteria in traditionally cultured milks secrete antibacterial agents, enhance immunity, break down cholesterol and reduce carcinogens. But in industrially processed yogurts, the bacteria added doesn't do the same work. Industrially added bacteria are designed to grow in milk only and can not survive in the body. Also, industrialized yogurt may contain only three or four selected microbes while traditional yogurt may contain a dozen or more. Industrial processing diminishes flavour and nutrition while traditional processing enhances them. Also, most industrially produced yogurts contain "skim milk powder" which in itself is a whole other problem but I'll get to that.

But what about cholesterol and heart disease?

 Cholesterol in milk and butter. It's bad, right? Wrong. We've been told over the past thirty years (since the vegetable oil companies evolved) that consuming cholesterol and saturated fats in milk and butter raises blood cholesterol levels and clogs arteries. With milk being rich in cholesterol and saturated fat, it might be considered an evil enemy and heart disease contributor but the history tells us otherwise.

 Many traditional diets include whole milk and butter without adverse effects. One tribe in particular, the Masai of Kenya, consume a diet that consists of mostly milk, blood and meat. A Masai man typically will drink a gallon of milk per day on top of the meat containing more saturated fat and cholesterol. And yet, the cholesterol levels of the Masai are approximately 50% less than the typical American. Then think about North America a hundred years or more ago. Recipe books typically included cream, eggs, and milk with 40% of the calories coming from fats, with slightly more saturated than unsaturated. Lard was used routinely. And this might all be unremarkable except for one thing. In 1900, when saturated fat was part of the routine American diet, heart disease was rare.

So what happened?
 Traditional fats were replaced by industrial fats. Vegetable oils and margarine were introduced. Traditional milk was replaced with industrial milk.  Particularly, skim (non-fat) and low fat homogenized milk appeared. By 1950, heart disease was the leading cause of death.
 From 1910 to 1970, rates of butter consumption plummeted while the percentage of vegetable oils in the diet soared by 400%.

What about skim milk?
  I won't drink it and neither will my family. Why? First of all it tastes like unappetizing milky water. Second, we need the butterfat to digest protein and for the bones to utilize calcium and absorb vitamin D. Third, the cream (fat) contains the vital fat soluble vitamins D and A. Without the vitamin D, less than 10 percent of dietary calcium is absorbed. But industrial milk is fortified with vitamin D and A, you say? Yes, synthetic vitamin D and A is required by law but there is growing evidence that fat soluble synthetic vitamins can be toxic when consumed in large amounts. Finally, whole milk contains glycosphingolipids. These are fats that protect the body against gastrointestinal infection. And a final note: Children who drink skim milk have diarrhea three to five times higher than children that drink whole milk. (Source- Mary Enig, PhD). That I don't want to deal with.

Skim milk, non-fat dairy, and heart disease

As researchers demonstrate every day, many other factors including sugar consumption, lack of B vitamins, consumption of too many vegetable oils, lack of exercise, smoking, etc. contribute to heart disease.  So what about the research that suggests high cholesterol and milk consumption are related? Again, lets look at what type of milk is being consumed in these studies. Skim milk made with powdered milk. Dried milk powder is created through a process called spray-drying, which creates oxidized or damaged cholesterol. In 1991, researchers found that "oxidized low- density lipoprotein (LDL) is more atherogenic than native (unoxidized) LDL." In other words, oxidized LDL causes atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) not real whole milk.

 And where is milk powder found? Pretty much in every dairy food found in your everyday supermarket. Industrial yogurt, skim milk, cheese (low-fat and regular), cheese substitutes, baby formula, baked goods, cocoa mixes, candy bars, and more. As for milk itself, nonfat dried milk is added to industrial skim milk, 1 percent and 2 percent milk. In fact, skim milk may be entirely made up of skim milk powder mixed with water depending upon the quality (i.e. think cheap) of the milk produced.

What about homogenization?
 Homogenization is a process in which milk is pumped at high pressure through a fine mesh, reducing its fats to tiny particles. The two are then forcefully re blended in varying amounts (1%, 2%, homo) so that they never separate. Why do this? First off all, convenience. Milk and cream separate naturally with the cream rising to the top, so when customers would get their milk, homogenization allows everyone to get the same share of cream. The second reason, cosmetics. After pasteurization, dead white blood cells and bacteria form a sludge that sinks to the bottom of the milk. Homogenization spreads this unsightly mass throughout the milk to make it "disappear". Personally, I'd rather it sit at the bottom of our non-homogenized whole milk so I know where it is and can dispose of it. So is homogenization necessary? No. It breaks up the delicate fats, contributes to rancidity and can cause milk to sour more quickly.

Almost there...what about raw milk?
  Raw milk has its fans. Many fans. It is more nutritious than pasteurized milk as pasteurization destroys folic acid, vitamins A, B6 and C. Pasteurization also inactivates the enzymes lipase (to digest fats), lactase (to digest lactose) and phosphatase (to absorb calcium) required to absorb the nutrients in milk. (Which is why some people who are lactose intolerant have no issues drinking raw milk.) Pasteurization creates oxidized cholesterol, alters milk proteins, and damages omega 3 fats. The heat used in pasteurization destroys or damages the lactic acid bacteria, the bacteria that aids in digestion and immunity. Raw milk also contains a cortisone like product that helps to combat arthritis, arteriosclerosis, and cataracts. Finally, raw butter contains myristoleic acid, which fights pancreatic cancer and arthritis. For years, especially during the 1920's and 1930's, raw milk diets were prescribed by doctors, citing raw milk as being rich in enzymes, vitamins and minerals. It is still believed that these factors contribute to the treatment of many ailments including poor digestion, arthritis, inflammation, rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, skin conditions, high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease, and more. Some doctors today, like Dr. Thomas Cowan in San Fransisco, continue to use raw milk to treat eczema, diabetes and arthritis.

But is it safe?
Any food can be contaminated by pathogens but raw milk is no more susceptible than pasteurized milk or any other food for that matter. In fact, spinach and deli meats cause more illness per year due to listeria or e coli contamination than raw milk. Ironically, nearly all outbreaks of food poisoning from milk and cheese in recent decades involved pasteurized milk. But whether or not you choose to consume raw milk might not be up to you. Currently, farmers are prohibited to sell raw milk in Canada (although there are individuals who get around the law by purchasing cow shares..wink, nudge). And in the U.S., 28 states do not allow the sale of raw milk. The debate is huge and both sides have valid points. If you want to learn more, there are many sites that offer their side. As for my family, although I believe the benefits of raw milk are huge, for ease of attainment, I am choosing pasteurized non-homogenized whole milk for now.

An important note: Organic milk is second best to grass fed or pastured. Organic cows must have "access" to pasture but most spend very little time outside and are fed organic grain. So grass fed milk is best, even if it is not organic.

Where to buy
 So where can you get pasteurized non homogenized traditional milk that is rich in omega 3s, has more vitamin A, more beta-carotene and other cancer reducing antioxidants? Where can you buy butter and cream rich in the heart disease reducing, lean muscle building, weight reducing, cancer kicking CLA? Or yogurts that are free of skim milk powder and made with fresh, whole non-homogenized milk?
Most large grocery store chains or specialty food stores like Whole Foods sell non-homgenized dairy products. Look for a label that includes the words "grass-fed", "non-homogenized", and "whole". Milk may also be called "traditional" or "old fashioned". Here in BC, Avalon and Gourts are fabulous providers of non-homogenized whole milk and raw cheeses. (Avalon also makes sour cream, cheddar Kerrygold is also widely available at chains such as Costco, Thrifty's, Overwaitea and Loblaws, to name a few. It is our family's favorite cheddar. Kerrygold also makes an amazingly delicious grassfed, organic butter as does Avalon. For yogurts, Saugeen Country and Tree Island Gourmet are our favourites. For sweetness, we just add in our favourite chopped up fruit or berries with a little vanilla and honey. Yum!
 and icecream). Raw cheese, by the way, is very safe. The bacteria created by fermentation inhibits the pathogens that raw milk may contain. The acidity of the cheese also kills harmful bacteria. A great all natural, grassfed cheddar (no orange dye here) that is imported from Ireland called Kerrygold.

In the US, Organic Valley or Natural by Nature are great options for milk. Kerrygold is also widely available for cheese and butter. With yogurt, look for "cream top", "natural" or "grass fed" on the label. There are many local companies for each state that produce local yogurts. As for national, a few of many brands include Brown Cow, Cultural Revolution, Stonyfield, and Strauss. Some of them do also make skim milk yogurt so make sure to check the label  for the above mentioned labels.

 Well, that was a long post but a valuable one. I hope you got some great information from it. And please, email me if you have any questions! I'd love to hear from you.


Bio  of Cari Snell:

Please visit Cari and her great recipes and blogs at

On top of thirteen years experience as a certified elementary school teacher, Cari Snell is also a dynamic and engaging workshop presenter, a holistic nutrition and whole foods educator, a whole foods and allergen free cook, an avid recipe developer, recipe writer and contributor to the popular "Kids Vancouver" lower mainland online resource guide and mom to two fabulous boys...

With a passion for unprocessed, nutrient dense, whole food cooking, Cari offers a variety of workshops, classes, nutrition services and programs to a variety of clients.