Buying the Healthiest Milk for your Family (It’s Probably Not Organic)

by Sarah Healthy Living, Raw Milk at HomeComments: 35

which is the healthiest milk

Buying the healthiest milk for your family can seem like a daunting process with so many choices on the shelves of supermarkets and healthfood stores.

Not all milk is created equal, and there are definitely easy ways to identify which jug to grab so that you get the best quality to support your family’s health while still considering value for your food dollar.

The first thing I would suggest is to take care not to fall for the modern fallacy that milk is for baby cows, not humans. While a catchy phrase that is often repeated particularly within the vegan community, in reality there isn’t a shred of truth to it.  Milk and other dairy products nourished and preserved humanity for millenia, long before the advent of agriculture (1).

Without milk’s key role in the history of humanity, I probably wouldn’t be typing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it either!

Unless you have a dairy allergy, consuming milk and other dairy products is a very healthy habit provided you look for quality where the cows (or goats) are eating what nature intended, and the milk is not processed to death creating an allergenic product.

If you have a true dairy allergy, this article contains three recipes for non-dairy milk that are healthy alternatives. It is important to understand that non-dairy milks available at the healthfood store such as coconut, rice, soy, almond, or hemp are, with few exceptions, not good options. This article describes why.

Note that most people who think they have a dairy allergy are in fact only allergic to the processing the milk has endured from its journey through the industrialized food system. A simple switch to raw dairy is the solution to that problem in most cases. An outline of the dairy industry’s sins is below.

Organic or Not, Healthy Milk is Never Ultrapasteurized

UHT or ultrapasteurized milk is the most brutalized and denatured milk on store shelves today. It should be avoided at all costs even if the milk itself is certified organic.

Did you know that UHT milk is cleverly placed in the refrigerated section, although it really could sit on the shelf of the supermarket instead?  Why is that? The reason is because dairy industry marketing gurus know that Americans are more easily duped into buying this garbage milk when it is deceptively refrigerated. In Europe, UHT milk is not typically refrigerated in case you are questioning the truth of this.

Remember this marketing tactic the next time you are tempted to pick up a half gallon of Organic Valley milk. Want to know more about the scam of UHT milk? This article describes in detail why ultrapasteurized milk is such an unhealthy choice.

The Healthiest Milk is Non-Homogenized

Homogenized milk is another processing trick used by the dairy industry to mask a thin creamline which is indicative of low quality milk. Homogenization essentially breaks the cream in the milk into smaller globules so that it remains distributed evenly throughout the milk without settling out at the top. Note that factory induced homogenization is only for cow milk as goat milk is naturally homogenized, although a tiny bit of cream can sometimes come to the top of goat milk too after it has been sitting undisturbed for awhile.

Unfortunately, homogenization of cow milk oxidizes at least some of the cholesterol in the milk. Oxidized cholesterol is not the type of cholesterol you want to consume as it can lead to health problems over time. This article contains more information on the dangers of oxidized cholesterol.

In the photo above, the jugs of milk are non-homogenized so you will notice the distinct creamline. This is the type of milk you want … one where you can visually inspect and judge the healthiness of the creamline like Moms and Dads did prior to the rise of the industrialized food system.

Fresh Milk is Healthier than Pasteurized

It’s not just homogenization that is dangerous. Pasteurized milk is to be avoided too, and not just the ultrapasteurized dairy described above that is so terribly allergenic.

Regular pasteurized milk is allergenic too (though less so than UHT milk) with many experiencing the uncomfortable symptoms of lactose intolerance when it is consumed. This is because the enzyme to digest the lactose (lactase) is destroyed when milk is pasteurized, so the person drinking it has to make his/her own. If a person is genetically unable to make much or any lactase, then the milk is not digested well and causes digestive symptoms such  as bloating and gas.

Even low-temp pasteurized milk is problematic for this reason. This article explains why low-temp pasteurized milk is really just as unhealthy as pasteurized and ultrapasteurized milk.

Warning: I have received an alarming number of emails in the past year or so where people describe low temp pasteurized milk being sold as “raw”.  This is the same trick that has been used in the cheese industry for quite awhile. Don’t fall for this one. If the milk has been heated at all, it is not raw.

The bottom line is that pasteurization, no matter what the temperature, destroys all the probiotics, enzymes and much of the vitamin content in milk. As a result, a pasteurized product could never be considered the healthiest milk. Moreover, this type of dairy should be avoided no matter what fancy marketing tricks are used on the label.

The Healthiest Milk is Fresh from The Cow (or Goat)

Ultimately, the healthiest milk to choose is fresh from the cow or goat. One dairy farmer in my area milks water buffalo, so if the only milk you can get that is fresh is from a non-typical dairy animal like this, it would still be the best choice.

Contrary to popular belief, most people have access to unpasteurized, fresh from the cow, raw milk whether they know it or not.

As of this writing, only six states in North America outlaw raw milk entirely (Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Louisiana, Iowa, and Delaware), with most of these states within an easy driving distance of an adjacent state where it is legal and easily purchased (2).

Worried that unpasteurized milk is somehow unsafe to drink?  Don’t be. Data taken directly from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that raw milk is one of the safest foods you can consume. According to Ted Beals MD, a person is about 35,000 times more likely to get sick from other foods than from raw milk.  For example, for the eleven year period 1999 to 2010, food borne illnesses from raw milk averaged only 42 per year even with nearly 10 million people in the United States drinking it regularly according to the 2010 census!

Cantaloupe and kale and many other processed foods have made far more people sick with foodborne illness than raw milk ever has! In 2011, an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes killed at least 13 with dozens of others hospitalized.

Why is raw milk so much safer than other foods? The reason is because it doesn’t pass through the industrialized food system which is where the risk of contamination is greatest. Raw milk is typically obtained directly and locally from a small, grassfed farm, and since the advent of modern refrigeration and automatic milking machines, raw milk has never been safer to consume.

In Europe, raw milk is available by vending machine it is considered so safe! This article and video shows me using one near Bologna, Italy.

Choosing the Healthiest Milk from Local Dairies

Once you have determined through research that raw, grassfed milk is the healthiest milk of all to buy and use in your home, the next task is to choose from amongst the local dairies that offer it for sale to the public.

You might think that raw, grassfed milk is pretty much uniform no matter what farm you buy it from, but this would be far from the truth.  Choosing a local dairy farm based solely on price and/or location is not the best way to make a decision.

I would suggest getting a gallon of milk from each farm you are considering and putting them side by side.

In the picture above, you can see two gallons of milk from two small dairy farms near me. Which would you choose as the healthiest milk?

I use the gallon with the blue cap on the left for two reasons.  First, the creamline is distinctively larger. The more cream, the better. If  you are still of the mindset that lowfat or skim milk is the healthiest, this article debunks that modern myth.  Second, the creamline is beige colored instead of white. Beige colored cream is preferable to white cream. Note that both of these dairies use the same type of cows (Jerseys) and are located in a similar climate and so seasonal variation in pasture forage is not responsible for the drastic difference in creamline and color.

Beige cream is indicative of the cow getting a lot of green pasture in the diet. Beige cream is also indicative of higher nutritional content in the milk. White cream, as shown on the right with the yellow cap, is indicative of a cow that is not getting much fresh, green forage in the diet. White creamline milk is also not as nutritious as beige creamline milk. Whether or not the milk is marketed as “pastured” or not is beside the point. Cows can be on pasture that is primarily dirt and weeds, for example. The color of the cream is going to tell you a lot about the quality of the pasture that the cows are grazing on.

Other tips for choosing a quality grassbased dairy farm that can supply the healthiest milk for your family ideally includes a visit to the farm to verify the following:

Cows and Pasture

Cows should have a comfortable place to lay down.  Cows that are comfortable when laying down look half asleep, possibly with their head tucked to the side or are chewing their cud contentedly.  Cows that are forced to lay down in mud or on concrete indicates a poor quality dairy situation.

The pasture where the cows are grazing should have grass that goes over their hooves.   Pasture that does not reach that high indicates an overgrazed situation.

The grass in the pasture should be lush. Bales of hay in a lush pasture is a good sign as too much lush grass can give a cow too much protein so some hay is needed to reduce the protein in the cow’s diet.

Cows should be busy (grazing) but content.

Cows should have good color definition.  Brown is brown and white is white.  The color stays in the lines and different colors on the cow should not blend together.

Cows that have hair standing up at the back and around the backbone is an indication that the milk you are getting is not particularly nutrient dense.

Cows should be shiny!  In winter, the thicker coat reduces this shine somewhat, but cows that don’t shine are not healthy.

Calves should look like adult cows, only smaller.  Their backs should be flat.

Look for cats around the property.  Cats are a very good indicator of how well the farm is managed. Cats should be content, healthy looking and easy to pet. Sneezing cats with gunky eyes or a bad coat is a bad sign for the farm in general.

Cows look at your with their ears.  When a cow looks in your direction, the ears should stand up and move in your direction.

This article describes more in detail about how to visually tell whether a dairy herd is healthy or not.

Barn and Milk House

The barn should smell like beachnut chewing tobacco.

The barn should NOT smell like ammonia, vinegar, or salami.

The milk house should have clear or black hoses.  Orange stained hoses or cracked black hoses is not a good sign.  Hoses should be replaced once a year.

The glass in the milking house should be crystal clear.

The window sills should be clean with no dust.

No pitting should be visible on the floor.

Off colored PVC vacuum lines or stainless steel milk lines (with dust) is not a good sign of cleanliness and attention to detail.

How did you choose a local dairy to provide the healthiest milk and other fresh dairy for your family? Did you know that a simple examination of the creamline like in the picture above can usually tell the tale?

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Comments (35)

  • A

    Hello. As a family, we have always enjoyed dairy products, and opt for raw, non homogenized when we can afford to do so. However, I was very recently alarmed when I learned, and verified with local dairies, that they all engage in the practice of milking pregnant cows. We are never told about estrogen in dairy… and in some cases quite elevated levels. We hear all about avoiding the synthetic hormones in conventional milk, but never about natural estrogen. Alot of studies are showing a definitive link b/w dairy and cancer… being organic, non homogenized, raw … does not matter. They all engage in this practice of milking pregnant cows. Pregnancy = estrogen. Estrogen in excess causes cancer. This leaves me entirely at a loss as to what to do about milk.

    May 25th, 2016 3:02 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Actually it DOES matter. These studies did not include raw grassfed milk.

      May 26th, 2016 2:00 pm Reply
      • A

        Unfortunately, being organic, raw, and grass-fed does not negate the fact that milking pregnant cows leads to elevated estrogen levels in the milk–even in organic, pastured cows/raw milk. Even organic, raw, grass fed dairy farmers, as I confirmed with a very large, reputable raw dairy producer in California, as well as a smaller producer, are guilty of this practice. I say guilty b/c it boils down to the money and profit margin. I would love to believe that the organic, raw, grass fed milk/dairy sitting in my fridge doesn’t have excess estrogen in it, but I would be deceiving myself. I opt for the non homogenized, raw, grass fed dairy, but now limit how much my family consumes. I find this quite sad, really. I wish it weren’t true, but with all the conflicting opinions out there, I’d rather be safe than sorry… just one more thing to look out for.

        May 26th, 2016 5:11 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I love raw milk and go through about 2 galllons per week by myself including some raw yogurt! I never used to be able to drink much milk unless it was chocolate flavor or something- the smell and taste of plain store milk just didn’t appeal to me at all. Guess I knew something wasn’t right with it before I even learned about what real milk is supposed to be like!

    March 6th, 2016 9:33 pm Reply
  • Monica

    Is it okay to use the pasteurized milk for homemade yogurt? My guess is probably not, but wanted to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for sharing this information.

    March 4th, 2016 1:59 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      It’s not ideal, but if that’s all you can find, then it’s up to you. I personally am not a fan of pasteurized yogurt.

      March 4th, 2016 5:09 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Hi there Sarah
    Thanks for the great article :) One more thing to consider if possible is obtaining A2 milk, rather than A1, for myriad health benefits. I’m sure you’ve talked about this in another article on your site, so was surprised not to see it mentioned in your article, here.
    Thanks and keep up the good work!
    Rebecca :)

    March 4th, 2016 2:05 am Reply
    • Sarah

      You know … I am not a big believer in the A1/A1 thing anymore. I used to be, but additional research and observing in my own community as led me to believe that what the cows eat is a much bigger factor on the milk than even the cow genetics. Here’s an article I wrote on my thoughts on the matter:

      March 4th, 2016 5:14 pm Reply
  • Tina

    I wonder your thoughts on how important it is to find certified organic raw milk. We have had access to wonderful Jersey milk with beautiful beige cream in the last couple of places we have lived. The place we are now has amazing raw Jersey milk that is 100% grass fed. The farm opposite to our dairy farm is a conventional farm that uses an airplane sprayer, so with wind, there could be residue on our dairy farmer’s pasture. Also our farmer sprouts barley over the winter to provide this nutritious food for the cows, but the barley seeds that he obtains comes from a sprayed crop of another local farmer. I desire the cleanest food possible, but also have first hand experience to the health benefits of raw milk and would hate to not get raw milk because of these factors. Any thoughts?

    March 2nd, 2016 4:04 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      It’s really up to you. I don’t think the organic certification necessarily eliminates the risk of spray from the wind from adjacent conventional farms. If you can find another dairy farm that doesn’t have these issues, that would be good whether or not it is certified organic. I would hate to say not to support this farmer as he is obviously doing the best he can under the circumstances. We live in such a polluted world, and it is so very important to support those farms that are part of the solution and not part of the problem even if their situation is not entirely perfect.

      The milk I get is not from a certified organic farm, by the way.

      March 2nd, 2016 4:50 pm Reply
      • Tina Paul

        Thanks Sarah! Your thoughts make so much sense!

        March 2nd, 2016 5:05 pm Reply
  • Mic

    How we chose a local dairy:
    I’m from Jersey but easily get raw milk from NY. I found a farm with an open milking policy that allows visitors everyday during afternoon milking to tour the barn and watch the process (transparency). I was amazed at the cleanliness of the barn. Next I was able to speak to the state health inspector (they come once a month in NY) he told me this is by far one of the cleanest farms in the area and has never had a problem with testing results (safety). We were so blessed to find this farm and were able to use the milk to make homemade formula when we adopted out son two years ago.

    March 1st, 2016 5:30 pm Reply
    • Anna

      Hi Mic. Can you tell me which farm you go to in NY. I am from NYC and get get my milk on Long Island but during the summer I spend some time upstate and would love to find a place to get milk there. Thanks.

      March 9th, 2016 1:00 pm Reply
  • Amanda

    We have a dexter/Jersey that is due to calve in the summer, and we plan on milking her, since right now we are getting our organic raw milk from a farm that is milking both Jerseys and Holsteins. Would it be safe to assume her milk is healthy, or should we get it tested before consumption? She is 100% organically raised and grass fed. I’m really not happy consuming holstein’s milk.

    February 29th, 2016 9:59 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Holstein milk is very low in cream. The holstein breed produces much more milk by volume than other cow breeds, but ounce for ounce is much less nutritious. This is why the dairy industry LOVES holstein milk … a lot of milk with little to no cream which they just then homogenize to hide this from the consumer. The consumer is then in the dark about the watered down milk they are actually buying. People who switch to raw milk from Jerseys or other traditional cow breeds are delighted how creamy the milk is and how much less they actually drink to feel satisfied.

      March 1st, 2016 7:42 am Reply
  • GH

    Thank you for sharing this info. We’ve been on raw dairy in CA for almost 5 years now (thanks to your blog) but it’s always great to hear new raw milk education. We’ve got great milk cream lines but I’ve never heard/known about variation in color. Ours is usually more on the white side lately which I’m sure has to do with limited water supply and having to supplement with more dried hay and grasses. But still appreciate the information. Thank you for your work and please please keep it up!

    February 29th, 2016 3:46 pm Reply
  • Kirsteen Wright

    I don’t live in the US and the sale of raw milk is illegal in the country where I live. I simply have no access to it, so should I never take milk at all?

    February 29th, 2016 2:13 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      I personally would not drink milk at all unless it was raw. If you want to use yogurt or kefir that at least has been cultured, then that would be a good alternative.

      February 29th, 2016 4:42 pm Reply
  • aimee hart

    What to do if you just cannot get raw milk? I live in Key West, FL and save driving to Miami (or further) every week there seems to be no way. We don’t use much dairy but I would like to buy milk/half and half/cream/sour cream once in a while. We have Publix and Winn Dixie here. Appreciate your articles always!!! Thank you!!!

    February 29th, 2016 1:56 pm Reply
  • Ahavah

    Very good point – not all raw, “pastured” milk is equal. Just wanted to note something – creamline is indeed a great indicator of milk quality and both cream and milk color are highly influenced by how much green forage the cow is getting, but that’s not the only factor in cream color. Jersey and Guernsey cows will produce cream that is always yellower than Holstein (and many other breeds of cows) cream, because Jersey and Guernsey cows don’t metabolize the beta-carotene in green grass to the same extent that many other cow breeds do – instead of turning all the beta-carotene into Vitamin A they will pass some of it on unchanged into the milk, thus giving their milk that golden glow. Even in a non-grazing, confinement situation, a Jersey or Guernsey will always produce a more beige colored cream than a Holstein would.

    Cream is wonderful :).

    February 29th, 2016 1:19 pm Reply
  • D. Matz

    I would of chose neither. Milk in plastic jugs is the worst tasting garbage. I amazed how many people cannot taste the plastic, no matter how “safe” the plastic is labeled. Transferring it to gas milk bottles still does not remove the foul “flavor”. Luckily, we now have a small farm selling raw, unpasteurized, non-homogenized milk in glass jugs. I have not had milk this yummy since I was a little girl, when milkmen delivered fresh milk in bottles to our door. The dairy does not supplement the cows’ feed with any soy, either, which carries over into the milk, (like it does to other livestock’s meat and chicken eggs). We live in an area that has tough winters, supplemental feeding is a must for livestock

    February 29th, 2016 1:13 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      I used to get raw milk in glass for several years and have now gotten it in plastic for about 9 years. I honestly can say that I don’t notice any difference in taste. Raw milk does stay fresh for drinking longer in the fridge when it is stored in glass … so transferring to 1/2 gallon mason jars is a good idea if you won’t drink it up right away.

      February 29th, 2016 1:22 pm Reply
  • CG

    In my state of Alabama this is the law: “Raw milk sales for human consumption are illegal. Raw milk sales for animal consumption are legal if the farmer has obtained a commercial feed license. There are currently no raw milk producers in the state with a commercial feed license.” So what do I do about that? Break the law? Get the law changed? In the meantime, how do I choose the best option available?

    February 29th, 2016 12:31 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Herdshares are legal in Alabama and several raw milk herdshares are currently in operation if you ask around. Here are some Alabama sources to consider also:

      February 29th, 2016 1:24 pm Reply
    • Julie

      My family and I are in the process of relocating to Birmingham, Alabama from Georgia. I have contacted the Alabama farmers on the site in search of raw cow’s milk. The one’s that have responded to my emails are no longer selling raw cow’s milk. I’m not sure what we are going to do when we get there because we go through 4 gallons of raw milk every week here in Georgia. :( Let me know if you find anyone that still sells it.

      March 1st, 2016 7:44 pm Reply
  • Kay

    In Central New York there is an excellent whole diet CSA where I get our raw milk–Greyrock Farm. Because of the severe climate here, the cows cannot graze for several months of the year and eat the hay they cut right on the farm. This situation obtains wherever there is a lot of snow, but that’s no reason not to drink the milk in the winter!

    New York laws are very restrictive. Raw milk has to be certified, and only the whole milk can be sold. Skimming the cream off extra milk to churn butter counts as processing and is illegal for the farmer to sell. That’s an annoyance, to be sure, but I’m very grateful to finally have a source of raw milk that doesn’t require an 80-mile round trip.

    I don’t know whether it’s the wonderful farm food and raw milk or the apple cider vinegar I started taking a while back, or both, but I haven’t had so much as a sniffle in more than two years.

    February 29th, 2016 12:05 pm Reply
  • Carole

    Sara, any suggestions where to get good raw milk on Tampa Bay?

    February 29th, 2016 12:03 pm Reply
  • Darlene

    I have heard if you are pregnant not to drink raw milk. What do you recommend for them?
    Try to get calcium from other sources and stay away from store bought milk?

    February 29th, 2016 11:23 am Reply
    • Sarah

      I drank raw milk .. usually a quart a day during my pregnancies :) Never had a problem. Warnings that raw milk is dangerous are hugely overblown and the extremely powerful and well financed dairy industry lobby is to blame for this. Why would the dairy industry care about raw milk? Because raw milk cannot be industrialized and puts the money back into the hands of the farmer and the consumer back in charge of the industry (instead of a few large corporations).

      I also craved and ate lots of brie cheese during pregnancy which is another supposed no-no. Turns out that brie cheese is loaded with a critical nutrient almost all pregnant women lack that has lifelong repercussions for their child’s health if sufficient quantities aren’t eaten during pregnancy.

      Of course, you will have to choose for yourself, but at least you know now to read the other side of the story :)

      February 29th, 2016 11:27 am Reply
      • Amanda

        I drank nearly 2 gallons of raw milk a week while I was pregnant and had the most wonderful and pain free labor! I encourage ALL of my pregnant friends to indulge!

        February 29th, 2016 9:54 pm Reply
  • Ellen

    What do you do with all of that cream?

    February 29th, 2016 11:15 am Reply
    • Sarah

      You shake up the jug and then pour a glass of milk :) Raw cream is SO GOOD FOR YOU! And, it keeps you thin because when you eat quality whole, unprocessed fats, sugar and carb cravings go to nil .. too bad most of America doesn’t know this or they would make a beeline for the local, raw dairy.

      February 29th, 2016 11:27 am Reply
  • Debbie

    Thank you for the great article! We only drink raw milk. When the cows are dry, we have opted for getting organic, low-temp pasteurized, non homogenized milk to have around for cooking/baking purposes, but not to drink. I love my raw milk and it is the only milk I (and my 2 year old) can drink.

    February 29th, 2016 11:13 am Reply

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