Holy cow - how did the darling of nutrition become the demon of disease? Before I begin, I'd like to make a full disclosure: I love the taste of milk, cheese, and yogurt - in all its full-fat glory. But, after seeing "Food Inc" and other disturbing documentaries on Netflix, I was forced to delve deeper into the dilemma of dairy. If cows are being treated so poorly, how can I possibly continue supporting such an industry? And (gulp) does this mean I can no longer have even a morsel of cheese with my fruit, or a splash of milk in my coffee?
A Cow's Life
How cows are raised is the toughest issue to deal with when it comes to enjoying dairy. But it's a sad fact, that the majority of cattle today are raised in CAFO's (Concentrated Animal Feeding Organizations), which are more like factories than farms. Cows are sentient animals: not only do they have the capacity to feel fear and loneliness, but they also crave affection, form friendships, and love to play!
So, what can we do if we want to keep dairy on the menu but can't ignore the brutal side of this business? Unfortunately, even those seeking to support humane farming can be thwarted by sneaky labeling. Terms like "natural" or "farm fresh" are not regulated and have no standards of care attached to them. Thankfully, there are reputable companies, along with valid certifications that can help us make informed decisions. Although some of the standards could definitely be higher, they're a step in the right direction. Here are some to check out:
Do We Need Dairy?
The short and easy answer to this question is no. But not needing something, doesn't mean it can't be beneficial. In fact, even those who are lactose intolerant (at least 65% of the population) can tolerate limited amounts of dairy, especially yogurt and hard cheeses, which typically have less lactose.
Calcium is probably the number one nutrient that comes to mind when we think of dairy. And although it's an excellent source of this vital mineral, it's not the only star of the show: salmon, sardines, oatmeal, almonds, beans, lentils, chia seeds, and leafy greens can all play significant roles when it comes to getting your daily requirement of calcium.
A simple 8 oz cup of milk also contains 8 grams of protein, numerous naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, and essential fatty acids (including those fantastic omega 3's that keep us young and healthy). So one advantage of dairy is that it's an easily found, reasonably priced, nutrient-dense food that your kids (and fussy spouses) will actually eat!
Hormones and Antibiotics
Although milk is a powerhouse when it comes to nutrition, it comes with a side of hormones too. And those little devils are what's causing most of the ruckus. Let's first address the very controversial rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), which is injected into cows to increase milk production. The FDA approved this synthetic hormone in 1993, but countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the European Union have never permitted its use. (Citing concerns for both human health and animal welfare.)
Thankfully, the public demand for milk free from rBGH has been so strong that most milk sold in the USA no longer contains this contentious hormone. But even with rBGH practically eliminated from our milk supply, there's still concern over naturally occurring hormones - and there's no getting away from those. Although there are differing opinions on how concerned we need to be over these hormones, my personal view is that sticking with organic dairy (which is free from artificial hormones and pesticides) is again the better and safer choice.
Which Milk is Better?
You may be surprised to learn that "full-fat" or whole milk could just as easily be called 3.5% milk - which sounds a whole lot friendlier, and uses the same criteria as other milk labels. So, contrary to popular belief, whole milk doesn't contain that much more fat than low-fat milk - and in my opinion whole dairy tastes a whole lot better!
Probably the most beneficial aspect of whole milk is the presence of essential fatty acids (which you need for optimum health). But if you eliminate the fat - there go most of the essential fatty acids! And here's where organic milk comes into play again. When cows are fed a diet rich in grass, there is a significant increase in omega 3 essential fatty acids: Not only that, but the ratio of omega 6's to omega 3's is more favorable too. Also, bear in mind, that fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) need fat to be absorbed. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (too late for that, I hear you groan) I'm voting for organic, whole milk again.
Raw Milk Risk
As a proponent of keeping food as real and unprocessed as possible, I would love to be a fan of raw milk. But unless you have complete faith in your local farmer, I wouldn't recommend taking the risk of becoming sick from the disease-causing bacteria that can be present in unpasteurized milk.
I wish there were a definitive answer to the dilemma over dairy, but I believe it all depends on the type of dairy you're consuming. Dairy doesn't play nicely with everyone. But if you enjoy it (like I do), my advice is to buy organic as a minimum requirement, and choose pasture-raised and/or 100% grass-fed whenever possible. It will be easier to match these criteria together when the new certified organic grass-fed dairy labels start showing up in supermarkets.
My favorite story, while researching for this article, was about a farm (How Now dairy) in Australia. These farmers have embarked on a "kind" milk revolution. Instead of separating calves from their mothers shortly after birth, they are left to frolic together in the pasture. Not only that, but they only take the excess milk, after the calves have had their fill. Now that's a happy tale!
Here are two of my favorite brands of milk.