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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
We used to get milk from a small dairy about a half hour or a little less away from us. Lately we’ve been using homemade or canned coconut milk, mostly for recipes that use dairy, for making ice cream, etc. We’re now contemplating getting milk from the farm again. Their cows aren’t completely pastured, but they are on grass most of the time. Their feed is conventional, but I believe it’s only used at milking time. Their cows are mostly or all Jersey, the milk kept in jugs in big tanks of ice water, and the jugs have a thick layer of cream at the top. It tastes great and keeps well. If they are still in business and have milk available, we hope to get it again, and I hope to get kefir grains to start fermenting again. Thank you for your comparisons of various types and qualities of milk in this article.
Kandy A Westmoreland
Where can I get raw milk in Houston Tx.
Sarah Pope MGA
I would suggest checking out the website realmilk.com It has locations by city.
In my research I could not find an answer to this question: in the rare event raw milk is contaminated with listeria (or even some other pathogen), would kefir grains kill the listeria making the kefir still safe to consume?
Sarah Pope MGA
If raw milk was contaminated with listeria, it wouldn’t even ferment at all. The fermentation process would fail.
I’m not doing raw and have the choices of regular markets or maybe a Whole Foods market. If I need to pick from what is conveniently available to me what the best brand or description to land in the middle. Not the best but not the worst. Thx
There is no good brand of pasteurized milk. Sorry 🙁
Go raw or go home.