I grew up drinking milk. Every time I sat down at the dinner table, I’d bring along a tall glass of two percent. It was very much part of the whole "growing boy" mentality of my parents' approach to nutrition, as in "have another serving, you're a growing boy." And when it came to milk, my parents were squarely following the recommendations of the US government. I still love the feeling of knocking back a glass of cool milk and enjoying how it’s somehow both refreshing and silky, like ice cream on a hot day.
But as good as it is, I still find myself drinking less and less milk as I get older. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend we consume 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products daily. This year an update for the guidelines is due – we’ll see if the dairy recommendation remains the same.
There for a while, milk used to be considered an unquestionably positive thing in your diet, whether it was for calcium or nutrition ("Got Milk," anyone?). That thinking has started to evolve. I have a lot of friends that steer clear of dairy for health reasons, from lactose intolerance to concerns over estrogen to how it impacts their overall health. (More on this below.)
Regardless of slightly changing trends in consumption, the production of milk - overwhelmingly milk from cows - is a massive industry that employs thousands of people. And, with wide differences between how milk is produced in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) versus the methods of smaller sustainable farmers, knowing what milk to buy is important.
A Brief History
The ancestor of the cow is the auroch (Game of Thrones fans will perk up at this). Aurochs were basically the rebellious older brother of today's goody two-shoes cow. While today’s cows would be trying out for the cheer squad, aurochs would be smoking behind the art building and listening to death metal. They were bigger, ran faster and were way more aggressive. Slowly we domesticated them into today’s cow. Sadly, aurochs went extinct in 1627 when the last one died, though some folks are trying to breed something similar to them.
After getting some aurochs to hang out with us, we began influencing bovine genetics. When it came to cattle, our influence interrupted natural selection and encouraged more docile (and often times, less intelligent) cattle to pass on their DNA. At first we kept cattle around for meat. At some point we figured out that the animals could help us in more ways than just for their meat, and some cultures started drinking milk as well.
Fast forward thousands of years to the mid-1800s and milk was mostly produced and consumed locally. Then milk started being transported via rail to urban areas to meet increasing demand, dairy producers began consolidating and the modern dairy industry was born.
- Most people don't know it, but many processed foods contain milk by-products to help flavors “stick.” For instance, many brands of chips contain dairy.
- Skim milk used to be trash back in the early 20th century. A leftover of butter production, skim milk and excess dairy by-products were routinely dumped in streams and ditches around big dairy operations. It’s an understatement to say that all of that made one heck of a disgusting, smelly mess. When Americans began to travel far and wide because of the widening availability of automobiles, dairy execs cleaned up their messes to keep up a wholesome public image. At first they tried to turn these by-products into consumer goods and industrial materials like car seats and faux-fur. After WWII, dairy execs sold skim milk to people as a way to lose weight – and the rest is history.
- When looking at the totality of the human population, lactose intolerance is basically the rule, not the exception. Babies drink milk and produce an enzyme called lactase that will break down lactose into sugars their bodies can use. Normally, as we get older we stop making lactase. Because of a genetic mutation, some humans continue to produce lactase as they age. Interestingly, rates of lactase persistence differ between ethnicities.
Production and Processing
Before we get into the process of milk production, let me just say that there are a lot of problems with how many cows are treated. The dairy cows are either treated well and enjoy the benefits of sustainable practices or are treated like a commodity and culled years before their natural lifespan after living a miserable life. We obviously prefer the first option and will get into the differences between sustainable dairies and factory farm dairies further on.
Like all mammals, cows produce milk after having a baby. After a brief period of producing colostrum (a thick yellow fluid that helps newborns), cows make milk. The typical dairy cow will produce milk for around a year until she is “dried off” and is kept out of production for a period so that she can recover. She’ll then be impregnated to start the cycle over again.
Cows are typically milked twice a day and they produce the peak amount of milk about 40 to 60 days after calving. On average, Cows produced 5,300 pounds of milk a year in 1950, while today the average is more than 20,000 pounds. The reason for the jump? Selective breeding and concerning factory farm practices.
After the cow is milked the process roughly follows the following path: it is collected and cooled, transported to a processing facility, is typically standardized, pasteurized, homogenized, packaged and then sold. Below is a bit more info on some of these processes:
This is the process by which processors control the amount of fat in milk. Typically milk is run through a centrifuge and the cream is removed from the skim milk. Then the cream is redistributed into the skim milk at the desired fat percentage, one percent or two percent for low-fat milk and about three and a quarter percent for whole milk.
When I was a kid, I was blown away when I found out that the term pasteurized doesn't have anything to do with a pasture but everything to do with a guy named Pasteur. To keep beer and wine from spoiling without ruining its quality, he figured out a way to kill the bacteria in it: heat it to a high temperature for a short time. The same process is applied to milk and voila - you’ve got a product that contains less harmful bacteria and has a longer shelf life. Ultra-pasteurization heats the product to an even higher temperature for an even shorter time, resulting in a product that has an even longer shelf life.
Please be advised: folks who look to the expiration date on milk as a guide to safety are doing it wrong. That date is just a guide put on there by the industry. Do the smell test - if it smells sour, it’s gone over. But don’t pitch it! There are still fun, useful things to do with it sour milk. Let’s reduce food waste, people!
Normally when you let it sit, the fat in milk separates out to the top. Homogenization prevents this by forcing the milk through tiny tubes under high pressure. Without providing a course in food science, basically what happens is the fat globules in milk are broken up so they don’t separate out as easily. The process makes milk taste blander, but gives it a smoother mouth feel.
Animal Welfare and Environmental Impact
There's a wide difference between the environmental impact and animal welfare of sustainable dairies versus factory dairy farms. Below are a few issues that are caused by the CAFOs - aka factory farm - model of dairy production:
Cattle can normally live 20 some-odd years. The typical lifespan of a milk cow in a CAFO is around four years. Why do they only live to be a few years old before they're killed for their meat? Because the way they're treated burns them out of high milk production in the best case and in the worst case they're "culled" because they contract diseases like mastitis (infection of the udder) or become so hurt they can't get to the milk stall. Dairy cows in sustainable dairies live much longer lives that are in many ways more fulfilling. They get to spend most of their time on pasture, are less stressed, are healthier and have more time with their calves.
Dairy cows should be out on pasture. When cows are raised on pasture, their manure is much less destructive as it naturally fertilizes the pasture. When you keep cows in barns for huge amounts of time, and you keep thousands to tens of thousands of them in the same place, then manure becomes a big, big problem. From liquefying it and spraying it on cropland, to having it sit in giant cesspools, the manure from factory farms is one of the United States most unregulated pollution sources. The fact that every day, America’s factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building is a #LoadOfCrap.
Often times factory dairy farm cows raised in CAFOs aren’t given time on pasture. Instead of eating grass - what they’re supposed to eat - CAFO cattle get grain, which is basically like feeding a kid a candy-only diet. It causes pain for the cow and pain for the environment. Most feed comes from industrially raised, GMO crops that were sprayed with pesticides like glyphosate (the primary active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup), which has recently been rated by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen.
The other concern that some people and scientists have with the current way a lot of milk is produced is the amount of estrogen it can contain. All animals with backbones create estrogen. As you know, it’s a powerful hormone that regulates a lot of processes in men and women. If we get too much of it, it can cause cancer and other major health problems. In the natural process of things, cow’s milk doesn’t include a bunch of estrogen, but the problem is that we inseminate cows before we let them go dry. This means that for a couple of months, we’re drawing milk from pregnant cows which can have 33 times the estrogen as the cow gets closer to term. Other factors such as stress and poor living conditions in CAFOs can also affect the quality and contents of cow’s milk.
It’s estimated that 17 percent of factory farmed dairy cattle receive recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone or somatotropin (rGBH and rBST) to increase their milk output. Organic dairies do not. Cows that receive the hormone are much more likely to produce inferior milk including more pus (yum) and have a higher chance of lameness and mastitis. It also means there might be other elements in the milk that could cause harm to your body. Learn more about rGBH/BST here, and more information about hormones here.
Treatment of calves
As mentioned above, in order to stay productive, dairy cows have babies every year or so. What happens to all these calves? If they’re ladies, they'll probably make milk. If they're boys, the best option is getting castrated and sold as steers to eventually be turned into beef. Worst case they are put in tiny crates where they can't move to prevent formation of red muscle and are then killed for veal. There are a lot of problems with veal, not to mention it's the beef most likely to be contaminated with antibiotic residues. More on the treatment of calves can be found here.
Other animal welfare issues
The abuses experienced by cattle and dairy cattle go further than the above. A big one is the unsanitary and painful removal of their horns and tails. To learn more about the systemic abuses that factory farmed dairy cattle experience, visit our animal welfare page.
What to look for
When buying milk - or any dairy based product for that matter - there are two things you should look for: is it certified USDA organic, and if not, is it produced locally by a small farmer?
The organic certification is easier to check and often bumps up the price considerably. Why is organic milk better? Organic dairies are required to have cows on pasture for a long chunk of time, can't feed their cows grain from GMO seeds and can't be given growth promoters or antibiotics. Are there problems with organically certified dairies? Yeah, there are. But for those of you who can't spend as much time as you want to source responsibly, organic is generally a vast improvement over conventionally produced dairy.
If you'd like to spend some time looking into the source of your milk (and we hope you do!), then search around your area for local dairy farms to support. If you live in a big city, look outside the city. There are dairy farmers out there who need your help! Talk to your dairy farmer and ask these questions. Some local dairies have really cool systems in place that allow you to get a steady supply of milk from sustainably raised cows that have good lives. Go out there, find them and be a milk snob - you have our permission!
Nutrition and effects on the body
America's love affair with cow’s milk (we are the world’s number one producer) is in part responsible because we encouraged milk consumption to curb malnutrition. Milk is a really, really complex thing with a lot of chemicals that we frankly haven’t studied enough yet. The below list some of the big nutritional elements of milk that are popularly discussed:
Proteins and casein: Milk has a lot of protein. One of them is casein, which is the stuff that folks tried to turn into industrial materials.
Carbohydrates and lactose: Alongside sugars, milk contains lactose, the sugar that causes problems for folks and is broken down by lactase.
Fats: This is what makes cream, cream. These saturated fats are what are turned into butter. These are also the emulsifiers that make milk smooth and ice cream a thing. While it's recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines that we're supposed to stay away from saturated fats, milk may contain chemicals that help us burn those fats better.
Calcium: While milk is an excellent source of calcium, which is important for the formation and maintenance of strong bones, the conventional wisdom that drinking gallons of milk will keep your bones from becoming brittle has a lot to do with industry spin. Certain groups of people benefit from a higher intake of calcium, like post-menopausal women and tweens. Many people get enough calcium from the foods they eat like broccoli and kale. Most people don't need calcium supplements. As always, it's important to chat with your doctor about health and nutrition.
Problems with iron uptake in infants: When infants drink cow’s milk, it can adversely affect their iron stores for various reasons.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Milk and dairy products have been used to bake and make yummy eats for a long, long time. The fats in milk make great emulsifiers that help food be smooth and/or fluffy. If you’ve got the time, try making your own dairy products, like cheese or flavored butter.
To get you on the path to getting creative with milk, here’s a really easy recipe for making rich, homemade ricotta cheese. Once made, smear this stuff on bread or in your favorite lasagna!
Makes about 1 big cup of ricotta
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart saucepan. Heat the milk to just before boiling and stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t scorch. If you want to use a candy thermometer, keep the milk to 190°F.
Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, then stir it a couple times really gently to incorporate the juice. You don’t want to stir it too much. Let your saucepan sit undisturbed for about 5 minutes. Sing “Little Miss Muffet” while lining a colander with some cheesecloth.
After five minutes, the curds and whey will have begun to separate in your saucepan. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the colander to let the curds and whey separate thoroughly.
For a spreadable, moist ricotta, let the curds sit in the cheesecloth for around an hour. For really thick ricotta, wait longer. Please note that the curds will firm as it cools off, so keep in mind that the warm ricotta you have sitting in front of you will end up firmer once in the fridge. Don’t pour the whey down the drain! There are tons of crafty uses for it and reasons to keep it around.
Eat the ricotta right away on toast and transfer the rest of it (if there is any) to an airtight container and refrigerate. It’ll last around a week or so.