Understanding Dairy Milk

Overwhelmed by dairy and non-dairy options? Learn more about cow milk in part 1 of this two-part series on milk.

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Photo by Couleur on Pixabay

If you’ve taken a trip to the dairy aisle lately, you’ve certainly noticed the great variety of milk options available these days. Either you grab what you always do, or you stand, staring (like me), a little overwhelmed at all your options. Which milk is the healthiest? Which is best for kids? Which won’t break the bank at checkout? This article takes a look at the most common dairy milk out there (just cow, as it’s the most popular) to help you make an informed and knowledgeable choice next time you’re staring into the rows and rows of moo juice.

Pasteurization (HTST) vs. Ultra Pasteurization (UHT) vs. Raw

Standard pasteurization, known as HTST (high temperature short time), the kind that most of us know about, heats up raw milk to a minimum of 161 degrees for 15 seconds. This process kills enough bacteria so that “fluid milk”, as industry calls it, can be shipped from the dairy and stored in your refrigerator for about seven to ten days before bacteria gain the upper hand and start the spoiling process. Ultra-pasteurized milk heats milk up to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for a mere two seconds. This process kills more bacteria than standard pasteurization, meaning UHT milk can be refrigerated, unopened, upwards of four months. Shelf stable UHT milk can remain unrefrigerated because this milk was packaged in aseptic containers called Tetra Paks (the kind you may be familiar with when buying non-dairy milks or soups). Tetra Paks have extra layers of protection and the milk is put into the containers without even being exposed to air.

Some people perceive the taste of UHT milk as being a bit off. It has a cooked taste that comes from the caramelization of some of the sugars in the milk. As far as nutrition goes, the pasteurization process does break down some of the nutrients, but the difference is slight. UHT’s high temperatures affect the nutrients even more. Also, the very fact that UHT is shelf stable for so long contributes to the breakdown of some of the milk’s protein. But, again, the difference isn’t big.

Raw Milk

Raw milk supporters argue that if we are talking about nutrition, raw fluid milk is the very best choice. There are several small studies that suggest raw milk is beneficial in the prevention of childhood afflictions such as allergies, but the evidence gathered in those studies cannot state with certainty that raw milk was the key factor in illness prevention. Raw milk advocates are a passionate bunch, and there is endless anecdotal evidence that raw milk treats everything from autism to skin problems to ear aches.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that raw milk can carry pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria that can cause serious illness, especially in children. Some 3% of Americans drink raw milk on a regular basis. According to the CDC, from 1998 to 2011, 1,909 people became sick from drinking raw milk, and 144 had to be hospitalized. The Minnesota Department of Health contends that, if one accounts for people who don’t report their illnesses, one in six raw milk drinkers will become sick at some point. It is actually illegal to buy or sell raw milk in 19 states. On the other hand, statistics also show the incidence of illness declining with better education and standards of practice in raw milk facilities. Another piece to factor in about raw milk, if available in your state, is the price. Raw milk commonly goes for upwards of 10 to 15 dollars a gallon.

Homogenization and Milk Fat Percentages

Homogenization is the process by which the fat in milk is physically broken down into small enough particles so that it is able to mix evenly throughout the milk, sort of like emulsified salad dressing. If milk is not homogenized, the fat will float to the surface, creating a lusciously creamy top, but a watery rest of the bottle. There is conflicting evidence as to whether small milk fat particles or large ones are a healthier choice. In any case, there is good evidence that milk fat plays an important part in transporting vitamins and minerals into the body.

Fluid milk percentages tell the consumer how much fat has been added back into the milk after homogenization. Whole milk actually contains only 3.25% milk fat (by weight). Two percent milk contains 2% milk fat, and so on. Skim milk has had all of its fat removed. The protein and nutrients remain the same for all percentages, however.

Organic vs. Non-organic

The USDA has a strict set of rules regarding whether milk can be properly labeled “organic.” The milk must come from a cow that has not been treated with hormones or antibiotics and the cow must pasture graze for at least 120 days and receive 30% of its food this way. Furthermore, the cows’ feed must not have been treated with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or GMO seeds. These factors are important to some consumers, not just for the quality of the milk, but for the quality of life for the cows.

Non-organic, or “conventional” milk has no such rules in place. Conventional milk does use antibiotics to treat common cow illnesses like mastitis, but the farmers will not put the cows back into production until their withdrawal time is up. This is the amount of time it takes for medication to decrease in an animal to an acceptable level. This can range anywhere from 36 to 96 hours for dairy cows. Furthermore, conventional milk is tested for antibiotics both at the farm and at the processing plant as a matter of course.

Conventional milk also uses reproductive hormones to control and coordinate breeding. These hormones are naturally produced in cows, but are manipulated by the farmer to better ensure breeding success. Much like raw milk, a major stumbling block to organic milk is the price. This stems from higher production and feed costs. Organic milk is often two to three times more expensive than conventional milk.

One fact to note about organic milk is that nearly all of it is ultra-pasteurized. Because the organic milk market is smaller, milk usually has a longer distribution journey and does not have as fast a turnover in stores. This is unfortunate for consumers who want both organic and standard (HTST) pasteurized milk.

Milk is a staple in the home of many families. Having an abundance of alternatives is often a blessing and a curse. The choices we have as consumers today reflect the nuances, demands, and limitations of a staple that many of us have been drinking our whole lives. This article is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to looking at milk as a food source and industry. No matter what kind you put in your cereal, milk makes for a fascinating food story.

Justina Klammer is a freelance ag-tech, horticulture, and sustainability writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in the Portland Mercury and Country Living Magazine. When she isn’t writing, you can find Justina digging around in the yard and reading noir crime novels–usually not at the same time.

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