I personally strive for optimal health, and nutrition is one of my top tools for getting there. That means I care a lot about what I do and do not put in my mouth. So while I’ve been a lifelong milk drinker, I’m currently a milk drinker only because I’ve recently done a lot of reading on the topic and arrived at the conclusion that milk can be a part of a healthy diet.
Now, as discussed yesterday, if you have a milk allergy or even a lactose intolerance that you can’t manage, then milk is not for you. Ditto if you have a health condition for which avoiding dairy products is part of treatment (phenylketonuria, for example). And if you don’t enjoy dairy products, or prefer to avoid them for environmental or animal welfare reasons, you can still have a perfectly healthy diet. Milk can be part of a healthy diet, but a healthy diet can also be milk-free.
As I said yesterday, not all milk is created equal. Based on my research, here is my list of “best milk” to “worst milk.” I personally stay within the top three about 95 percent of the time. The other 5 percent covers the small amount of milk I put in my coffee at coffee shops.
- Raw, organic whole milk from a local dairy
- Organic pasteurized, non-homogenized whole milk from Organic Valley
- Organic pasteurized, homogenized low-fat milk from Organic Valley or another local dairy
- Organic pasteurized, homogenized low-fat milk from a large national mega-dairy
- Organic ultrapasteurized, homogenized low-fat milk
- Non-organic milk from a local dairy
- Non-organic milk from who knows where
Now, some further explanation:
1. If I had my way, I would only drink whole, raw (unpasteurized), non-homogenized milk from a local dairy. This is a preference that makes total sense to some, but is quite shocking to others, especially since it’s illegal to sell raw milk in 22 states. It’s legal in Washington, but stores like Whole Foods and the local chain PCC Natural Markets have gotten scared of being sued, so have stopped carrying it. That leaves only a few inconveniently located (for me) stores in Seattle that sell raw milk. Ergo, I rarely drink raw milk anymore. (And no, I’m not whining about “access to healthy food.” There’s a big difference between having to drive seven miles to buy raw milk and having to leave your neighborhood to buy vegetables.)
Raw milk is not for everyone. Some people (pregnant women, young children, people with weak immune systems) have to be really careful about what they eat, I totally get that. And most milk produced in this country has no business being drunk raw. Safe raw milk has to come from very carefully, hygienically tended dairy operations, which generally means small dairy farms. When the process of pasteurization was developed back in the late 1800s, there was no way to test milk to see if it was infected with pathogens. That’s not the case today. Jeff and I drank raw milk for well over a year before we had a hard time getting our hands on it, and we never had a problem. Properly produced raw milk is truly a whole food. I would never say to anyone “you should drink raw milk.” It’s a personal choice. I just have two wishes: First, that people wouldn’t have knee-jerk reactions to the words “raw milk,” and second, that people in all states had the legal right to choose raw milk, if they were so inclined.
2. When I do drink pasteurized (aka non-raw) milk, I avoid ultrapasteurized milk, which is subjected to higher temperatures. I also prefer non-homogenized milk, because homogenization breaks up the milk fat particles, which may not be the healthiest thing. Some people say that non-homogenized milk is more digestible, but I haven’t personally noticed a difference. The only brand of non-homogenized milk I’ve found is from Organic Valley, but that’s a product offering that’s unique to the Northwest, apparently. Non-homogenized milk is whole milk, which isn’t for everyone, I know. I mostly use milk in my coffee and in cooking (I don’t drink milk by the glass, as I prefer yogurt for my primary source of dairy), so I don’t consume a lot of milk
3. When I buy organic milk, I nearly always buy from Organic Valley or from another local dairy. I consider Organic Valley local because they are divided into regions, so the milk you drink in New York isn’t going to come from cows in Washington State, and vice versa. This is not necessarily true for “industrial organic” dairy producers, such as Horizon. I opt for lowfat milk, to reduce the amount of dairy fat I’m ingesting, since it is homogenized.
4-7. I really avoid buying milk from these categories. If I had to, I would choose pasteurized over ultrapasteurized, organic over non-organic, local over non-local. And I would go for lowfat or nonfat, because when consuming the more processed types of milk, I think it’s best if there is less fat in it.
So what about non-dairy “milks”? Soy, nut and rice milks are all highly processed foods, so I don’t think they need to play a big role in anyone’s diet. I think they are all fine in moderation (I use organic unsweetened vanilla almond milk in smoothies), although I would caution people about soy milk. Again, I think even soy milk is OK in moderation, but it concerns me that so many people have jumped on the “soy as superfood” bandwagon, and maybe not really thought about the issue. Some forms of soy are quite healthy, but there are many, many forms of highly processed soy foods available (including stuff that is just junk food with health claims attached). And the shake out over these health claims is starting to gain speed.
This post went on longer than planned, but still it’s only the tip of the iceberg. As I said, I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject of milk, some of it straightforward science, some of it propaganda from groups with opposing agendas. I have a pretty good critical eye, I think, and when you read enough of this stuff, it gets easier to weed out the B.S. I feel good about the dairy decisions I’ve made for my household, and if some of what I’ve written rings true to you, great. But ultimately it’s your decision, of course.