Growing up, I remember times where I would chug glass of milk after glass of milk without giving it a second thought. People drank milk unabashedly back then since it was seen as an essential source of calcium that encouraged strong bones and teeth.
Fast forward 20 years and people are avoiding milk like the plague—plus there are so many different types it can make your head spin. Skim milk or whole milk? Homogenized or unhomogenized? Organic, non-organic, or grass-fed? Well, today I’m going to walk you through the different types of milk and which one is best for you based on your needs.
First Thing’s First: Breaking Down the “Milk Lingo”
Pasteurized, homogenized, raw… What does it all actually mean?
Commercially-bought milks typically go through processes called pasteurization and homogenization. Contrary to what most people think, they’re completely separate processes that have nothing to do with one another.
Pasteurization is a process where milk is heated to a specific temperature for a set period of time to kill off any harmful bacteria. Homogenization is when specialized equipment breaks down the milk’s fat globules into a smaller size so that it’s evenly distributed throughout. This prevents separation from occurring.
Raw milk doesn’t undergo either of these processes; it’s collected, filtered, and bottled, the end. However, it’s actually illegal to buy or sell in Canada since it’s associated with an “increased risk of serious illness because it has not been pasteurized to eliminate harmful bacteria,” according to Health Canada. Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria are just some of the harmful components that have been found in raw and unpasteurized milk.
The Case for Raw Milk
There’s an entire community of raw milk-lovers who argue that pasteurization and homogenization decrease milk’s nutritional value and kill off the good bacteria along with the bad. These people secretly buy and sell raw milk due to its alleged ability to strengthen the immune system, reduce allergies, increase bone density, assist weight loss, and build lean muscle. The trick is to get the raw milk from healthy, grass-fed, pasture-raised cows, they say, which contains more than 60 enzymes, fat- and water-soluble vitamins, minerals and trace elements, all essential amino acids, and the omega-6 fatty acid CLA.
Research agrees with only some of these claims. Take a 2011 article from the Journal of Food Protection, for example, which conducted a systematic review of 40 different studies to see if pasteurization affected the vitamin content of milk. They concluded that while concentrations of vitamin B12, vitamin E, and vitamin A increased after pasteurization, concentrations of vitamin B1, B2, and folate decreased. (Levels of vitamin B6 remained unchanged.) As the study states, “Milk is an important dietary source of vitamin B2, and the impact of heat treatment should be further considered.” Additionally, six of the 40 studies they analyzed—or 15%—highlighted the protective effect that raw milk can have on allergies, which many raw milk-lovers tout as one of its benefits.
TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK?
I personally don’t have the courage to drink raw milk while it’s illegal in Canada; I would simply rather buy good-quality milk from the grocery store rather than find a “milk dealer” to meet up with in abandoned parking lots. That being said, go ahead and drink raw milk if you’re comfortable with it. You won’t be alone: a 2007 FoodNet survey done by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention revealed that about 9.4 million Americans drink raw milk. And on average, only 42 people per year get sick from the stuff. I also want to mention that some Neilson Dairy Partly Skimmed Chocolate Milk products were recalled for potential Listeria contamination when I was writing this post—even though that milk is pasteurized and homogenized. Nonetheless, do your due diligence if you’re going to drink raw milk. Do your research, ask long-time drinkers about their experiences, and find a reliable seller. And know that at the end of the day, choosing to drink raw milk means making the personal choice to possibly put yourself at risk.
Skim vs. Whole Milk
Skim milk and whole milk mainly vary in terms of their fat content, with skim milk containing 0.1% milk fat versus the 3.5% found in whole milk.
Skim milk is made by putting whole milk into a machine called a “centrifugal separator,” which basically spins the milk at high forces so that the fat globules are “pushed out” of the milk. After this step, the milk is typically homogenized to prevent separation from occurring. Federal law mandates that most skim milk be fortified by vitamin A and sometimes vitamin D since these fat-soluble vitamins are lost when fat isn’t present. Dried milk powders can also be added to thicken up the texture of watery skim milk.
Whole milk is also pasteurized and homogenized (for the most part) and is fortified, too. Besides the fact that 400 different fatty acids have been identified in milk fat, many whole milk drinkers say they like it simply because it’s closer to milk’s natural form, which is true; the fat content of whole milk is identical to that which comes straight from the cow.
Up until now, many of us have opted for skim milk in the hopes that it will prevent us from gaining weight, but science doesn’t back up this fear. As a 12-year study from Sweden confirmed, high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity than low fat dairy. In other words, people who consumed butter, full fat milk, and whipping cream daily or during several days of the week were at lower risk of central obesity than those that chose margarine, low-fat milk, and skipped the whipped cream. This echoes results from other studies, which have associated whole-fat dairy consumption with lower insulin resistance.
Additionally, a much-referenced study from Circulation looked at 3,333 adults between 30-75 years of age over a 15-year period and confirmed that people with higher concentrations of dairy fatty acids in their plasma had as much as a 46% lower risk of developing diabetes than those who regularly consumed low-fat foods.
Why might this be the case? Well, some people point to the fact that whole milk is simply more satiating, meaning you’re less likely to eat more refined carbs or other “bad foods” afterwards. Another article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says dairy fat is a dietary source of CLA, which has been shown to possibly have fat-reducing effects.
TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK?
It can be a little scary switching to whole milk after years of being told that fat makes us fat, but that’s not the case. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t recommend chugging three glasses of whole milk a day; that really can add up to a lot of calories that your body might not be used to and seriously no one needs that much dairy. I would recommend using a bit of whole milk in your tea, coffee, or cereal and then opting for lower-calorie nut milks throughout the rest of the day.
Homogenized Vs. Unhomogenized
The picture gets even more complicated! To refresh your memory, homogenization involves emulsifying milk fat so it becomes evenly distributed. In unhomogenized milk, the fat rises to the top and forms a cream that you can either spoon out or shake into the rest of the milk.
Some people worry that homogenization alters the structural components of the milk and negatively affects our ability to absorb the vitamin D it contains. They point fingers at an enzyme called xanthine oxidase (XOD), which can increase disease-causing inflammation if blood levels get too high. However, “the adverse effects of XOD in milk remain theoretical,” and XOD can’t even be absorbed by food, according to Berkeley Wellness.
Additionally, studies have shown that homogenization can actually improve the digestibility of milk and that it doesn’t increase the risk of allergy or intolerance in children or adults, adds the evidence-based health resource.
TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK?
If you prefer the taste of unhomogenized milk, then drink up! Otherwise, homogenized milk is perfectly nutritious, more convenient if you’re on the go, and cheaper.
Organic vs. Grass-Fed vs. Non-Organic Milk
HOW AM I STILL WRITING ABOUT MILK? Seriously, it’s crazy how complicated the stuff is but hey, education is key.
The main difference between organic, grass-fed, and non-organic milk has to do with what the cows are fed.
Non-organic milk comes from cows that don’t have much room to roam around, are confined to a barn stall, and eat non-organic food like grain, corn, and soy. Conversely, organic milk comes from cows that consume food that’s free of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). To get the “organic” designation, 30% of their diet must also come from grass.
Finally, there’s dairy from grass-fed cows. They roam around and eat grass all year long. According to an article published in The Globe and Mail, milk from grass-fed cows contains twice as much omega-3 as regular milk, which reduces inflammation and can lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK?
Grass-fed milk might be the most expensive on the list, but I’d argue the benefits far outweigh the costs, especially if you make an effort to reduce the amount you drink. Rolling Meadows is Canada’s first grass-fed dairy brand and is a great option!
The Bottom Line
Unless you’re lactose intolerant, there’s no reason to avoid drinking milk so long as you’re drinking the good-quality stuff. Grass-fed, whole, homogenized milk is my top choice, but don’t chug the stuff like it’s going out of style. Firstly, you’ll drain your bank account if you do that and secondly, you want a healthy balance of all the food groups, not just an abundance of dairy. I’d argue that many North Americans eat way more dairy than is necessary from yogurt, cheese, milk, chocolate, etc., and there’s even a theory that allergies stem from the excessive intake of a particular food (but that’s a whole other blog post)!