Real food. Real solutions.

The Dairy Dilemma

Dairy is one of those things that is super controversial depending on who you ask. Arguments range from milk being the best source of calcium and vitamin D (which many people are deficient in) to humans are the only species which consumes milk beyond infancy. Even I have mixed feelings about dairy consumption. But I’m totally a sucker for cows. 
I actually took those pictures myself earlier this week when I was on a tour of a dairy farm. The tour made me feel a lot more positively towards dairy products in general. What do you need to know about dairy?

Hormones
Cows naturally produce a hormone called bovine somatotropin (BST) or bovine growth hormone (BGH). A-company-who-must-not-be-named (I refuse to give them more attention) then figured out how develop this hormone in a lab. When the lab hormone, called rBST or rBGH, is injected into cows their milk production is increased by 10-15%. But this can cause a lot of problems for the cows. Their poor udders get infected and infection = need for antibiotics. How would you like an infected boob?! Plus, when cows are treated with rBST they produce milk which has higher amounts of BST and another protein called insulin-like growth factor 1. A number of health organizations including the FDA have made claims that this is safe but they also think food dyes are cool. What I learned on the dairy farm was that few dairy farmers still use rBST. Consumers, rightfully, were hesitant to consume milk from cows treated with rBST and because of this many dairy farmers have stopped using it. Check your milk label to make sure it says “rBST free.”

Antibiotics
Overuse of antibiotics is rampant and this has caused problems from antibiotic resistant bacteria to gut dysbiosis (a fancy term for when your gut bugs are messed up). Any additional antibiotics coming from our food is obviously not a good thing. Unfortunately, when cows live in super cramped spaces the poor things are dirtier, more stressed, more likely to get sick or hurt, and thus more likely to need antibiotics. I know especially in commercial farming operations cows are fed antibiotics like candy. What I learned on this tour is that all dairy, whether it is organic or not, is tested for antibiotic residues. All milk must have antibiotic levels below a certain number so low the farmer described it to us as being equivalent to a can of beer in Lake Michigan. 

Pesticides & Diet
I love cows. They’re huge and dumb and I really want one. I like it when cows are treated well. When they’re allowed to graze on a field like they should. When they aren’t being fed food that was sprayed with pesticides. When cow are fed things they wouldn’t normally eat like corn and soy it changes the composition of their milk and meat. Grass fed cows are higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, and the antioxidants glutathione and superoxide dismutase [1]. That’s the stuff we want in our foods!

Homogenization & Pasteurization
Homogenization is a process milk goes through to make it uniform. Fat tends to clump together so during homogenization milk is pumped through teeny tiny holes to make the product all the same. Pasteurization heats the milk to a high temperature for a short period of time to kill off any bacteria. I know this doesn’t sound so bad but these two processes significantly changes the inner guts of the milk you are consuming. The two main proteins in milk are casein and whey. The calcium in milk is in the form of calcium phosphate which is super easily absorbed and the fat in milk is contained within a phospholipid membrane just like all of the rest of the cells in our body are. When milk is pasteurized and homogenized the membrane around the fat goes bye-bye and the calcium reacts with the now free floating fat in a process called saponification. This process produces a molecule which can be really irritating to our intestines. To add to it, this new calcium molecule is harder for us to absorb meaning milk may not be the best source of calcium after all. The sugar in milk also reacts with the proteins and causes a cock-eyed shape making protein more difficult to absorb. Basically, these things make milk less nutritious and more irritating to our guts.

Conventional vs. Organic vs. Raw
I used to think buying organic was a better option than conventional but on the dairy farm tour I learned the regular milk you buy in the grocery store is likely to come from within your state or a close neighboring state. Because milk is such a perishable product dairy farmers and producers strive to get milk from the cow to the shelf in 48-72 hours. Organic milk, on the other hand, typically travels from farther away so it needs to be more shelf stable. Because of this, it is ultra-pasteurized which can further damage the components of the milk. That being said, organic milk is sure not to contain hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. If a cow in an organic operation gets an infection that requires antibiotics the cow actually has to leave the farm. The farm I was on allowed their cows to graze on the pasture and used manure to fertilize his soil but he didn’t want to become an organic operation because he said: “If I get sick and need antibiotics I want them! And I want the same for my cows.” Precious as hell, I know. 

That leaves raw. Raw milk is just that, straight from the teet. I really have been waiting this whole time to make a teet reference. Full of enzymes which help in the digestive process and bacteria like the kind on your skin and in your yogurt that fills your intestines with the good stuff. Pasteurization was invented to kill bacteria which made people sick but unfortunately it also kills the enzymes and good bacteria which make people healthy. Raw milk is just like any other meat product though, it needs to be handled properly. When handled properly it is perfectly safe for consumption. Many people, farmers in particular, have somehow managed to live for generations and generations without dropping dead from raw milk. If you choose to consume raw dairy it is very important to develop a relationship with the person you are getting your product from. You need to know what their practices are like to ensure you are receiving safe products. I have done it before and it is delicious, don’t be scared! If you can get raw milk from a local pasture-raised cow you’ve got liquid gold, my friend.

I can’t really say that I would argue with any type of cow’s milk you choose to consume because I really can see the upside to each. You should definitely avoid flavored milks. I’m not a fan of milk replacement products like soy, almond, and rice milks. One cup of milk has 8 g or protein per cup and almond and rice milks simply do not compare. Soy milk has a comparable amount of protein but soy really scares me. More on that in the coming weeks. All of these milk replacement products also contain synthetic vitamins and minerals to make them nutritionally similar to cow’s milk. But you and I both know synthetic doesn’t work in our bodies the same way. Ain’t nobody got time for fake stuff. On top of that, they add texturizers like carageenan and heaven only knows what chemical process had to occur to get those extracted from their original form.

If you do choose to consume milk, skim is not your best option. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat soluble vitamins which means they need fat in order to be absorbed. When fat is removed from our milk these vitamins go with it making low-fat milk options less nutritious. As we learned last week, fuller fat dairy products are associated with lower BMIs, yum!

And if you decide milk isn’t your thing…

Dairy Free
I just so happen to have a friend who likes trying a dairy elimination with her clients because the truth is milk is a highly allergenic food and is not the only source of calcium in our diets. She recently wrote an article about eliminating dairy which you can find here.

So what do you think of all this? Do you avoid milk? Or what kind of milk to you choose for yourself and your family?

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