Like eggs, when it comes to milk the options can be overwhelming – between cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, raw milk, almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, rice milk, and soy milk – what should you choose? Did I mention there’s lactose-free, organic, antibiotic-free, non-pasteurized, homogenized, rBST/rBGH free, and so on?
Organic: Organic milk is produced without synthetic chemicals, hormones, or antibiotics. The cows are not necessarily grass-fed, but they are fed organically. The cows are supposed to be kept in pens with adequate space and they are allowed periodic access to the outdoors as well as direct sunlight.
Pasteurized: Pasteurized milk is heat-treated to kill pathogens which can cause disease. Even after pasteurization, milk will still go bad after two to three weeks of refrigeration.
UHT milk: Milk treated with the ultra-high temperature that can be stored at room temperature for 3 months or more – this is the milk you often see on shelves, in a box (i.e., Parmalat).
Homogenized: Milk is treated to prevent a cream layer from separating out. They do this by pumping it at very high pressure through narrow tubes. Homogenized milk is often blander but with a creamier mouthfeel. Some say homogenizing the milk makes it more digestible. non-homogenized milk will have a cream layer on top.
Raw: Raw milk, illegal in many states, has not been heated above 105 degrees F, has not been frozen, altered with additives, chemicals, or light. So, raw milk is non-homogenized and unpasteurized. Proponents say the flavor is much richer and stronger and nothing like the typical grocery store-bought milk, especially if you can find grass-fed raw milk.
Lactose-free: Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk. People with lactose intolerance have difficulty breaking down lactose due to a lack or absence of lactase in their digestive tract, causing cramps, bloating and gassiness when they drink regular milk. By adding lactase, the enzyme that dissolves lactose, manufacturers are able to produce lactose-free versions.
rBST/rBGH free: recombinant Bovine Somatotropin / recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone is a genetically engineered synthetic version of the natural growth hormone produced by cows. Injection of this hormone forces cows to boost milk production by about 10%. These synthetic hormones are banned in many countries but presumed safe by the EPA/FDA. Dairies can use the label rBST-free as long as it’s accompanied by a disclaimer suggesting that no harmful human health effects have been linked with the hormone, though many scientists take issue with this. Animal-rights activists say it harms the cows as well.
Antibiotic-free: According to the FDA, all milk is free of antibiotics. Milk is rigorously tested for antibiotics and if any are found, the milk is not to reach store shelves. Therefore, this label is simply a marketing ploy.
Believed to be more easily digested and less allergenic than cow’s milk, goat’s milk is very popular outside the US. Unlike cow’s milk, goat’s milk does not need to be homogenized (due to its small fat globules). The proteins in goat’s milk are said to be most similar to those found in breast milk.
Like goat’s milk, sheep’s milk is more digestible than cow’s milk; however, it is mainly used for dairy products, like cheeses rather than drinking because it is richer in fats, solids, and minerals. Traditionally, Feta, Roquefort, Manchego, and Ricotta cheeses are made from sheep’s milk. Sheep’s milk is reportedly more nutritious – richer in vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium.
We will leave the non-dairy alternatives for milk to another post. Hopefully, this primer will help you decipher the myriad of options out there.