Thursday, January 13, 2011

Just How Many Milk Decisions Must I Agonize Over?

A chance comment sends Sustainamom on a milk research mission...

Milk. It may do a body good, but it drives a green mom crazy. At least the non-vegan green moms.

I started buying organic milk long before my pregnancy. Thanks to media attention, I was aware of the dangers of hormones in milk long before I considered the health or eco-implications of every single decision I make in the grocery store.

So, organic milk. That was easy.

Then my son was born and I went off the green end.

First, I worried about the plastic. Milk is not sold in glass bottles at any of my local grocery stores. I kept buying plastic jugs of milk and recycling the jugs all the while worrying about leaching.

Then I started to eat more locally sourced foods. I was thrilled when my twice-a-month veggie delivery added the option to buy milk from a local farm. Not certified organic, but a quick email to the farmer reassured me that the cows are mostly grass-fed, free of hormones and steroids, and given antibiotics only if they are sick. (Drawbacks: (1) the milk is more expensive, but then again it is delivered! (2) two weeks out of the month, I have two half-gallon jugs to recycle instead of one gallon jug.)

So, I started having local milk (pasteurized, non-homogenized) delivered every other week and buying organic milk (pasteurized and homogenized) at the store the alternating weeks. That was easy.

Then a friend mentioned she’d purchased milk from a farmer at her farmer’s market. He’d taken a great deal of time explaining to her the meaning of “pasteurized” and “homogenized.” And the health implications of “homogenized.”

Now, I’ve read about raw milk before. And with all the food recall scares, I opt to err on the side of paranoia and buy pasteurized milk. But I had not thought about what "homogenized" means in terms of health.

(In case you’re not familiar with the terms, homogenization is the process of reducing the size of fat molecules in milk so that the cream does not separate from the milk. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to destroy bacteria. In many states, it is not legal to buy or sell non-pasteurized — or raw — milk for human consumption because of risks of contamination. On the other hand, raw milk proponents feel the added benefits of raw milk — including taste and higher vitamin content — outweigh risks. It really depends on the source of the milk, I think.)

Anyway, homogenized… According to my friend, the farmer explained that his milk was not homogenized and would separate. He did not want her to think that the milk was bad if she noticed separation. But he went on to say that non-homogenized milk is healthier. He said that our bodies digest the different size particles differently. He indicated that the smaller fat particles of homogenized milk are more likely to contribute to the clogging of our arteries and heart disease.

Obviously this farmer is biased toward his product, but my friend is a nurse practitioner and she said that it is an interesting theory.

So here we go again. More worrying. In spite of recent encouragement from Ruchi and The Conscious Shopper to focus on the positives. ☺

Here is what I found about homogenization:

Apparently, a Dr. Kurt Oster theorized that the homogenization of milk was causing an epidemic of heart disease. (The timing of the epidemic coincided with the widespread distribution of homogenized milk.) This theory was studied from the early 1960s until the mid-1980s and has been disproven.

You can read all about it in “Milk Homogenization and Heart Disease” by Mary G. Enig, PhD, who ends the article by saying,
“The fact that Oster's theory has been disproven does not mean that the homogenization process is benign. During homogenization there is a tremendous increase in surface area on the fat globules. The original fat globule membrane is lost and a new one is formed that incorporates a much greater portion of casein and whey proteins. This may account for the increased allergenicity of modern processed milk.”
So I’ve now spent hours trying to find a non-biased, fairly easy-to-understand answer to my original homogenization question only to be told that even the scientists do not know what other questions I need to be worried about! I should’ve listened to Ruchi and The Conscious Shopper!

After reading about this subject, I'm inclined to look for the least processed milk that I can legally buy. I think that would be non-homogenized milk that is pasteurized using the vat process at 145 degrees. Anyone know something else I should know before I declare this my final answer?


Please note that the website hosting Enig’s article is by a company that advocates raw milk. I tried to find unbiased sources, but they were more technical and much longer. I think Enig’s article sums up what I found elsewhere, and I like her credentials.

Additional interesting information that I came across:

• Dairy products are sensitive to photo-oxidation. In other words, exposure to light causes quality deterioration, therefore many dairies prefer to bottle milk in opaque plastic bottles rather than glass. Light affects the vitamins and minerals, as well as the proteins, in milk. (A quick search at My Plastic-free Life reveals you can find milk in glass bottles, though. Do you buy in glass? Where? Notice any quality issues?)

If you are interested in reading varying perspectives about raw and processed milk, here are a few resources:

• The Weston A. Price Foundation maintains - includes sources for raw milk by state, should you be interested.

• Cornell University maintains which has an interesting FAQ

• Law firm Marler Clark maintains “Raw Milk: An Issue of Safety or Freedom?” is an interesting read.

Do you have any good sources of information about milk and the effects of processing or packaging? What is your take on raw milk, different levels of pasteurization, and homogenization?

* original photo by wwarby on Flickr


Amy Mono said...

Hi, I've recently been switching up my milk supply for the better too. Two weeks ago I found raw, un-homogenized milk at my farmers market (plastic bottles, darn). Not only was it hands down the most delicious, creamy, gorgeous milk I have ever tasted (the yoghurt too.. yummm....) but since then I have NOT had any new spots. For me this is nothing short of a miracle! Since I hit my teens I've been plagued with acne, and this is the first time I can remember that I have had "normal" skin! I don't know if it's the un-homogenised factor (which as you said could be more alergenic) or the lack of hormones in 'normal' milk (even though I've been organic for several months now), but whatever it is - I'm not going back! If it's not my wonderful farmer's dairy - I'm not touching it!

Anonymous said...

I get milk in glass from my farmer's market. We keep milk in the fridge, and they keep in cooling boxes until I buy it, so even though it's in glass, I don't think it has much exposure to light.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's so many decisions to make for something that seems so simple! It makes me oddly happy that my body doesn't tolerate milk.


Sandy said...

I drink raw milk whenever it's available; I prefer goat milk during the spring and summer, but when my local farm goats are dried for kidding, I switch to raw cow's milk from the same farm. Since starting with raw milk, I have been able to get off the allergy shots I had taken for several years (I'm allergic to so many trees and grasses, among other things...or I WAS...), and most of my gastric problems have cleared up. I believe this is due to the beneficial bacteria still present in this sweet, clean milk, as well as the fact that the animals are processing the very things I'm allergic to and "immunizing" me gently through the milk. I can't even drink processed milk anymore. It tastes fake to me. I take my glass jars to the farm, and they fill them for me while I wait. It's perfect, local, and earth friendly. I know the animals are treated humanely and without antibiotics or hormones, are allowed to graze in the warm months, and I actually volunteer there, so I see the entire process. I know my milk before I drink it. Win-win.

Anonymous said...

Some of many reasons why I switched to drinking almond milk! Good luck in finding the best milk for you and your family.

ruchi said...

Haha, worry must be in the air today. I actually just wrote a post about my fears about BPA, plastic, etc! I have a hard time following my own advice, I guess.

With regards to the milk, yeah, I've sort of struggled with that too. My conclusion was to just buy glass bottles of organic milk from Whole Foods.

I don't know what the answers are in terms of homogenization and pasteurization. Personally, I be extremely cautious and would want to do more research before I agreed to drink raw milk. I know people are always talking about how natural it is and how people were drinking it for centuries, but people also, you know, died a lot back then prematurely.

According to the FDA, pasteurization was "implemented to destroy Mycobacterium bovis, which causes systemic tuberculosis in humans." Now, I don't know how responsible pasteurization itself was for the decline in TB rates, but I think it's something worth looking into.

Carmen said...

I for one think we drink too much milk. I'm not against milk, but I limit my kid's intake to 2-3 servings per day at a maximum. It seems to me that raw milk is nature's perfect food for a growing cow....

I buy a local creamery's milk in glass from the Farmer's Market, but overall, I don't sweat whether or not the nutrients were destroyed in pastuerization because I don't look to milk to be supplying our nutrients. I look at it as a flavored drink with a little calcium to be had in moderation.

Rosa said...

Will your family safely and neatly drink non-homogenized milk? I use it for making yogurt, since I pour it all out and stir it up, but my partner and son seem incapable of shaking the milk bottle up good without spraying the whole kitchen, so we buy homogenized for drinking/cereal.

Also, the plastic seems like a draw, in terms of waste - the caps on the glass bottles here are nonrecyclable and nonreturnable, and even though they're smaller they actually contain more plastic by weight than an entire gallon jug of recyclable plastic.

Eco Yogini said...

I understand your underlying point (or i hope that was what you were getting at)...
I think Michael Pollan had the right idea (although i donèt think it was his idea originally) that our society has an extremely unhealthy and paranoid view of food. Every five seconds a newsflash occurs and we're informed of a new health/non health aspect of a food.
We have some much information bombarded at us that it's to the point that we need to be dietitians, researchers and bio-chemists just to figure out what is what.

it sounds like you are trying to make the best choices available to you and your family. I would have to say that all the choices you are making are better than regular old milk. And most likely won't be seriously harming your family.

Leanne from Hazeltree Farm pointed out to me the other day that I should be focusing on the big things and trying my best on the little things. :)

Green Bean said...

Quick! To the fridge! My local, organic milk that comes in a glass bottle is not homogenized. Whew. I'd never read up on that.

I used to do the raw milk thing - also delivered, from a local organic dairy, in a glass bottle. We found that it went bad much more quickly and while I'm sure that is good because it is the natural state of things, we are not big milk drinkers and couldn't keep up. In the end, I figured less milk that was pasteurized but otherwise equal (local, organic, glass), was good enough.

Anonymous said...

We had a cow share for about a year and loved it! No milk allergies. =) I buy milk in glass from Kroger...when we can get to town. The local mart is small and only has plastic.
I am curious about the correlation between processed/not and heart disease. Anytime you mess with nature, there will be an unforeseen side effect. *shakes head* I am curious on what you find/decide.

Farmer's Daughter said...

My son drinks raw, non-homogenized milk. From my boobs :) Just had to throw that out there!

As for the cow variety... both my parents grew up on dairy farms. My mom's family drank milk that my grandmother "pasteurized" on the wood cookstove by bringing it up to just boiling. My dad's family drank their milk raw. I think the bottom line in the raw vs. pasteuriezed debate is know your farmer. I personally buy local pasteurized, homogenized milk because it's what we can afford.

You do know the benefits of whole milk vs. skim, right? :) Fat is a good thing.

Alison said...

No milk -- the only dairy is occasional aged cheese & full fat yogurt in our house. I use almond milk, hemp milk, coconut milk or water in recipes that call for milk. I make sure we eat lots of nuts for good fats and calcium, sesame seeds & tahini, other vegetables that are high in calcium and occasional fish for added D. We do take Vitamin D supplements. For nutritional value, hemp milk gets an A+++ grade in my book! We use the Original unsweetened by Tempti. And it can be grown in the US (not sure if is, but it can be) unlike coconut milk.

Helena said...

ONE time, I was able to find milk in glass bottles at my local Publix, but it was a couple years ago and they never had it again, so I don't even recall the brand. As far as quality, there was no problem--in fact, I thought it tasted better than milk from a cardboard carton or plastic bottle...cleaner, somehow, with less of a "packaged" taste (I hope that makes sense, I'm having a hard time describing what I mean).

SustainaMom said...

Thanks, everyone for sharing your opinions/experience. I'm very intrigued by the raw milk debate but just not comfortable with it. I feel like what I'm missing in vitamins or taste is worth the loss to reduce risk of contamination. But I'm still hoping to learn more about homogenization.

Of course, now I need to go research the health benefits of different fat levels in milk. Thanks, @Farmer's Daughter ;) (I currently buy 2%, so I'm hoping that is in the "good" range!!)

@Allison, I've never even heard of almond milk or hemp milk, so I'll mark those on my list of items to research as well. However, milk is my picky son's favorite source of calories, so I'm sure we won't be switching any time soon...

Daisy said...

It's a dilemma, that it is. I know of only one dairy locally that uses glass bottles. I haven't even gotten as far as raw milk.

Wendy said...

We have access to both raw milk and pasteurized milk in glass bottles.

We use raw milk, because my daughter has a difficult time digesting the processed milk (she also has difficulty with ice cream - poor girl :). Luckily, for me, I live in one of those states where it is legal to buy raw milk - straight from the farmer, and we do so using 1/2 gallon canning jars, and it's very cool when the cream separates from the milk, and we can scoop it off for richer coffee or whipped cream ;).

As for the raw vs. pasteurized argument, I'm inclined to argue in favor of raw, assuming the "consumer" knows the source. I would never advocate for widespread distribution of "raw" milk (whether organic or not) at the level we distribute other milk products, especially if that raw milk comes from a facility where hundreds to thousands of cows are securely tethered day-in-and-day-out in a closed structure. Some dairy farms have thousands of cows, and in that scenario, there's just too much opportunity for "stuff" to happen. The pasteurization process protects people from the potential of contamination from milk that was collected in a factory-farm setting.

However, if one has a local farmer, and one has observed said farmer's practices and one can actually touch and interact with the farmer's cows, then, I highly encourage switching to raw milk, because overall, it's my belief that raw milk is better for us than the processed milk.

suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter} said...

i alternate with grocery store milk and raw milk from a local farm (when we remember--it's available for 1.5 hrs two days a week and i forget a lot.)

i love going to the farm. we bring our own container and they fill it up right there (as you can watch the cows be milked.)

raw, unpasteurized, and unhomogenized (and creamy delicious.)

i have to think that un-fooled-around-with is best.

Cindy @ One Part Sunshine said...

I switched for a while to non-homogenized milk in glass bottles from a local farm. But, it was not certified organic and they do use things like antibiotics when necessary. So I switched back to organic milk in cartons (also local). I just don't know which is the better option. Is it more important to avoid plastic and homogenizing or is better to have organic milk? And what exactly are those milk cartons made out of anyway?

Rosa said...

I just have to say this about the "know the farmer's practices" line for raw milk - we have a local farmer whose contaminated milk has made people sick, who still claims only factory-farmed milk can be contaminated, whose supporters swarm call-in shows and reporters denying that it's even possible for anyone to get sick from small-farm raw milk. The laws about milk sales predate factory farming by a few decades.

So it can be very hard to get real information just by talking to the farmer. Not just the farmer but everyone who handles the milk has to have scrupulous habits.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin