Let me first say that I'm not a huge milk drinker, and really never have been. Even growing up on a farm, with the freshest, healthiest milk possible, it just never appealed to me that much - although I do love other milk products like yogurt, cheese, butter, and ice cream (and who doesn't?) :-) And I do cook with milk somewhat often, but I probably don't use that much compared to most Americans.
When I think about milk in general as a food, it has always seemed kind of odd and unnatural to me that we drink the milk of another species (we are the only creature who does this), even as adults - all other species only drink milk as babies - and of course only their own! But perhaps it shouldn't seem so strange. After all, humans have been consuming milk for thousands of years. While in this country we think of milk as coming from cows or maybe goats, cultures the world over have regularly consumed sheep's milk, yak's milk, horse's milk, and even camel's milk. In some societies milk has been a major source of fat and protein, and a fairly important part of the diet for survival. The consumption of milk by humans goes back at least 9,000 years, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.
But recent critics of milk point to a number of supposedly milk-related health problems. They say that milk increases acidity in the body, is difficult to digest and leads to allergies, and (as my observation above) that it is an unnatural substance for the human body to consume. While all of these concerns may certainly have some truth to them, I take issue with the fact that these critics lump all milk together. As with most foodstuffs, how it is processed makes quite a difference, and as is certainly the case with milk, the wrong kind of processing can not only diminish, but even completely destroy any nutritional properties the food originally contained.
Specifically, here are just a few of the reasons you should NOT drink conventionally sourced and processed milk:
- Conventionally raised dairy cows are not healthy or normal - in fact, in Sally Fallon's book, Nourishing Traditions (based on the revolutionary studies of nutrition and health in traditional cultures by Dr. Weston Price), she calls modern cows "freaks of nature." Selective breeding, application of growth hormones, excessive antibiotic use, and unnatural feeding of soybeans and corn (which are very hard on a cow's digestive system) lead conventional dairy cows to produce unnaturally large amounts of milk, suffer from many diseases, live short, unhealthy lives, and produce milk contaminated with pus (yuck!), harmful bacteria, and other nasty things.*
- Pasteurization - a method of sterilizing milk by heating it to high enough temperatures to kill any harmful bacteria - also kills any good bacteria, all enzymes (which would help protect the milk as well as help your body digest it), destroys vitamin content, and reduces availability of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and more. And with modern sanitation methods and proper care given to packaging and transport, today pasteurization is largely unnecessary from a safety standpoint anyway.* In fact, pasteurization can even potentially make milk less safe, as beneficial enzymes and bacteria naturally occurring in raw milk can often protect against external pathogens. As mentioned in Fallon's book, "All outbreaks of salmonella from contaminated milk in recent decades - and there have been many - have occurred in pasteurized milk."
- Homogenization - a method of forcing milk through a processor to break up the droplets of fat into particles so small that they no longer separate from the rest of the milk (which is why conventional milk - even whole milk - doesn't have cream on top) - has been shown to actually change the nature of the milk molecules so as to be virtually indigestible by most people. So not only are you not absorbing any of the calcium (or other minerals) so touted by the milk industry as one of the main "benefits" of drinking milk, but you're actually harming your body by consuming this now-unrecognizable substance. As Fallon says, "Modern pasteurized [and homogenized] milk, devoid of its enzyme content, puts an enormous strain on the body's digestive mechanism.... This milk passes through not fully digested, and can build up around the tiny villi of the small intestine, preventing the absorption of vital nutrients and promoting the uptake of toxic substances. The result is allergies, chronic fatigue, and a host of degenerative diseases."*
So should you drink milk or not? That's up to you, but I'm going to be much more extreme than usual here (abandoning my usual "everything in moderation stance" in this case), and say that if you do drink milk, you should NEVER ever drink regular, conventional milk. Just to be clear - this is the kind in the white plastic jugs lining the milk section in every supermarket in America.
If you are going to drink milk, be sure it's REAL milk. Real milk is raw, unpasteurized, non-homogenized and preferably whole. It comes from healthy cows raised outside on pasture, and fed a diet of fresh, green grass. Raw milk can be really hard to find, and is illegal to buy/sell in most states (how ridiculous is that?!). But if you have your own cow (or goat), or own part of a herd share, it may be possible. Check out www.realmilk.com for more information and to find a source near you.
If you can't find raw milk, the next best thing is non-homogenized milk, preferably pasteurized at the lowest legal temperature. Most dairies that sell non-homogenized milk are more conscious of the health of their product, as well as the cows that produce it, and they are more prone to pasture their cows, and pasteurize their milk at lower temperatures.
As more people become aware of the health problems associated with modern processed foods, more non-homogenized milk options are becoming available even in mainstream supermarkets. Currently I am aware of two good options available in some supermarkets in central Ohio, and when I can't get raw milk, I get one of these. My favorite comes in old-fashioned glass milk jugs, with a nice thick cream line, is slowly pasteurized at the lowest legal temperature, and is some of the best tasting milk I've ever tasted in my life. I still don't drink it plain very often, but I do make quite a bit of yogurt with it, and it makes just about the best yogurt ever! I also skim off some of the cream and make butter with it. (If you've never made your own butter, you should try it sometime. It's super easy, and you've never tasted anything so good!) If you find a brand of non-homogenized milk you would like to try, just do a bit of research on the dairy - it's easy to do online nowadays - and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised at how conscientious they are about taking good care of their cows, and treating their milk gently to preserve its health benefits.
Milk isn't necessarily good for everyone, but neither is it evil, as some health "gurus" would have you believe. As with any other food, the way it is processed before it gets to your table is of utmost importance when it comes to how healthy it is. Whether you drink milk is up to you, but if you do, as I always say, drink it the way God made it!
* Source: Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, by Sally Fallon & Mary Enig, Newtrends Publishing, Inc.; Revised and Updated 2nd edition (October 1, 1999).