Milk 101: Whole, Raw, Organic, Low-Fat, Etc.

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We’ve been getting all sorts of questions about dairy lately, especially around the many different types of milk options out there. So hopefully this post will clear some things up. Later this month we’ll be sharing our thoughts on cheese, sour cream, yogurt, and other dairy products as well so be sure to stay tuned!

Raw Milk

Before our switch to real food I honestly had no idea what “raw milk” even was. I actually remember the day I first discovered that there’s an entire world out there of raw milk advocates complete with websites, blogs, non-profit organizations, and the like. I’ve learned that the people who drink raw milk really LOVE their raw milk and feel strongly about their choice.

Raw milk is literally the way the milk comes out of the cow. It has not been pasteurized (heated to kill pathogens) or homogenized (processed to suspend fat globules) in any way, shape, or form. In the most basic terms it’s exactly what the calves get. And I actually think this quote from Wikipedia sums up why raw milk can be such a heated topic these days:

“Health food proponents tout the benefits of raw milk and the ills of pasteurization and homogenization. The medical community warns of the dangers of not pasteurizing milk. Preferences vary from region to region.” – Wikipedia

So speaking of our “region” raw milk is actually illegal here in North Carolina. I’ve had many people tell me I can drive just over the border into South Carolina to buy some, but to be honest I was actually kind of relieved that I didn’t have to make the tough decision if we should drink raw milk or not. I know the advocates say raw milk can cure all your ailments (or something like that), but others say there are health risks with milk that hasn’t been pasteurized (which kills both potentially harmful and beneficial bacteria – just like cooking raw meat). So I’ve basically chosen to just stay out of it and drink the milk that is available to us here in town, which is obviously a personal choice that has been influenced by the state in which we live.

Plus I tried raw milk once and it didn’t exactly taste like the “milk” I am used to drinking (and enjoy), but I am certainly very happy for everyone who drinks raw milk and loves it. To each his own!

Pasteurized, Non-Homogenized, Whole Milk (from Grass-Fed Cows)

This is the type of milk that we’ve determined to be the least processed milk available here in North Carolina, and what we started drinking sometime last year. My whole 33 years prior to that I mainly drank skim milk so let me tell you what I was SCARED to gradually go from skim to whole (we briefly drank 2% in-between). I did it though and honestly have never looked back. The milk we drink now is soooo good and fresh…it tastes how I think milk should taste! And to offset the switch to full-fat dairy we also reduced our consumption a bit, which helped from a budgeting standpoint as well.

The brand we buy is called Homestead Creamery (I get it from Earth Fare – pictured above) and it’s from cows that are mostly – but not 100% – grass-fed. Cows were designed by evolution to eat grass (not corn) so they are healthier when they do, which in turn gives more nutritious animal products to us as a result. The milk we buy is also pasteurized at a slightly lower temperature than standard grocery store milk so for me I feel like this gets us a little bit closer to that whole “raw milk” option without going all the way. And while Homestead Creamery is not USDA Certified Organic they do follow all organic practices. Getting officially certified is expensive and timely so it’s always good to ask this question when purchasing from smaller farms.

Organic Milk

If you can’t find local, grass-fed, non-homogenized milk in your area then I think a “big brand” (i.e. Horizon or Stoneyfield) of organic, whole milk is the next best bet. One downfall of highly commercialized organic milk though is that it’s actually ultra-pasteurized at a high temperature, which leaves even less beneficial bacteria. This is why the expiration dates are sometimes further out than their conventional counterparts. I am not sure if they did this to give organic a longer shelf life (before it started becoming more popular), but regardless that’s the way it’s done and it usually says it right there on the package so it’s not a secret.

As I once heard Dr. Oz say though you can’t “peel” or “wash” off dairy like you can when it comes to conventional produce so I agree with his advice to go organic when it comes to dairy products (including milk).

Low-Fat Milk

As part of our switch to real food we did away with all low-fat and non-fat products, including milk. You can read more about that switch in our “Mini-Pledge Week 6: No Low-Fat, Lite or Nonfat Food Products” post. In short, according to Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food:

“To make dairy products low fat, it’s not enough to remove the fat. You then have to go to great lengths to preserve the body or creamy texture by working in all kinds of food additives. In the case of low-fat or skim milk, that usually means adding powdered milk. But powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol, which scientists believe is much worse for your arteries than ordinary cholesterol, so food makers sometimes compensate by adding antioxidants, further complicating what had been a simple one-ingredient whole food. Also, removing the fat makes it that much harder for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that are one of the reasons to drink milk in the first place.” – Michael Pollan

After recently learning that the orange juice industry doesn’t even include their mysterious “flavor packs” (to keep the juice tasting the same year-round) on their list of ingredients I wouldn’t count on seeing “powdered milk” listed as in ingredient on your skim milk jug anytime soon either. Long story short – I don’t think anyone can argue that low-fat and skim milk isn’t “more processed” than whole milk, which is of course one of our family’s top concerns when it comes to making food choices.

Milk Alternatives

Some people just can’t tolerate dairy and thankfully for them there are all sorts of milk alternatives out there these days. I do want to say though that I don’t personally believe there’s any reason to avoid dairy unless you have an allergy or intolerance. If you are one of those that needs to skip the lactose be sure to look for milk alternatives that are unsweetened, but no matter what always read the ingredients. My top choices would be either unsweetened full-fat coconut milk or almond milk…or even brown rice milk. Soy is already an additive in so many packaged foods so I would favor some of the other choices out there instead.

What kind of milk do you drink (and why)?

Local Dairy Resources

To search for local farms in your area that might offer grass-fed dairy products like milk check out the following resources:

Our New Sponsor

I would also like to introduce one of our newest sponsors… Xtrema Healthy Cookware! Xtrema’s “green” pots and pans (by Ceramcor) are made from non-toxic ceramic material and they are lightweight, durable, and extremely versatile. They can go from stove top to over to broiler to microwave to refrigerator to freezer to tabletop. Xtrema recently sent me the pictured pan in the mail and so far it’s been working out great. And they are offering 10% to all of you so please go show them some love! Sponsors help make this site go around.

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406 comments to Milk 101: Whole, Raw, Organic, Low-Fat, Etc.

  • Eliya Bolgrin

    I have been buying original coconut milk for the last 6 months (I am EBF and my son has a dairy sensitivity) and I never even considered that it would have added sugar and other additives I can’t pronounce! I just looked at the ingredient list this morning and was shocked! I assumed because it was “original” that, well, it would just be coconut milk! I am taking my 3 cartons back to the store today and getting the unsweetened!

  • Angie

    I viewed Got the Facts on Milk and can never see dairy in the same way. Have you seen it?

  • Sarah

    My family discovered raw milk about a year ago and we’ve been drinking it ever since. I honestly didn’t know what it was either when I first stumbled across it & the first time I bought it I was a bit hesitant. Now there is no going back. My daughters won’t even touch the 1% they offer at school.

    • jackie

      Beth this article may be true for most milk out there on the market…..but 100% raw milk from grass fed cows do not have any of those problems mentioned in the article such as oversized and dragging udders, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Therefore your comment is only partially correct. Milk Can be beneficial if in its raw form without processing or additives.

      • haley

        right, raw milk only contains e coli. way better than getting cancer from the unnatural toxins that come from regular milk by companies pumping the cow full of drugs to make it produce more milk. either way u could die. doesnt mean u will but it is linked to disease. but whatever. go drink ur delicious nutritious cancer piss juice. does a body good! :)

        • Jackie

          If raw milk contained e coli there would be a lot of ppl getting sick from drinking raw milk. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information but you have a better chance of getting e coli from eating spinach that got contaminated by the runoff of CAFOs. Raw milk has been consumed for many years, it wasn’t until the industrial age when ppl started getting sick from milk. Do a little research.


  • Neha

    I use organic, grass-fed, non-homogenized milk. Just curious to know – how do do you use the cream on top? I keep on collecting mine stored in the fridge, and every two weeks I first churn butter and then make ghee from that. Also, I make my own yogurt from this milk.

  • [...] aside from ensuring I eat a variety of real, whole foods (including full-fat dairy), keeping my portion sizes in check is at the top of my priority list. When our family documented [...]

  • Do you have any information about whole powered milk?

    Thanks – Jim

  • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi there Jim. Powdered milk is not an ingredient Lisa uses. That is mainly because it is more processed but there are also some concerns regarding oxidized cholesterol in milk powders. ~Amy

  • adrienne

    “to each his own”- your quote regarding raw milk… I agree and that is why it should be LEGAL in all states!!! Our family has been on raw milk for years. It truly depends on the farm and type of cowns and what they are eating. So, tasting it once is not fair. It is like tasting white sweet wine and then saying ” I have tasted wine and really don’t care for it”….there are many varieties. Also, seasons change the taste. During summer when there is a lot of green grass, the milk gets pretty strong tasting. I prefer it in the winter months personally.

  • Sara

    What is the difference between organic milk and milk that is not labeled organic but says it is free from artificial growth hormones?

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Sara. It means the cows are raised conventionally, fed conventionally, etc. without organic standards but are not given bovine growth hormones. ~Amy

  • Joiss carvalho

    ..I grow up in a country where all the milk you purchase , even in the store, you actually had to “boil” it before you drink, because was not pasteurized. Just to kill the bad bacteria. All you have to do is just pour the raw milk in the pot and wait few minutes for it to go all the way up to end of the pot (boil up) . thats all.Food industry , or the society have imposed some many “rules” that sometimes it hard for everyone to desbileve .

  • So is organic milk actually more benificial to your health
    then basic store brands?

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Arlene. When you buy organic milk, you are not consuming added hormones, antibiotics, and a host of herbicides and pesticides that you may consume with non-organic milk. Switching to organic dairy is more expensive but worth it, even if you have to cut back on quantity. ~Amy

  • Hilary

    Ive heard a LOT lately about how awful cow’s milk is for humans, how it causes cancer, etc, because humans are not designed to drink cow’s milk at all. Then there are other people who say that it is so good for you. What is a mama to believe? I only want the best for my kids but Im not sure which side is “right.” Could you do a post about this soon or something? Im sure it’s something many people are wondering.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Hilary. Lisa’s family enjoys their milk and dairy and have no reservations about cow’s milk. They try to buy the highest quality dairy they can find and feel good about that. What it comes down to, really, is making a decision that you feel is right for your family based on the information you can gather. You can find research that support all sides in this argument but it really becomes a personal decision. ~Amy

  • Do you know if Homestead uses powdered milk products in creating its 2% milk? We love the taste, and I was hoping maybe the company’s low-fat process is less damaging than that used by the bigger, conventional dairy companies.

  • Faisal

    Raw milk is illegal in Canada but I recently started bringing milk from an organic store that sells Organic , non homogenized and pasteurized (on low heat). Its less processed and most of the enzymes stay with it. Also, easy on digestion.
    Regarding your comment about milk alternatives. I have yet to see any true alternative to dairy milk. Almond, Soy and other milks dont have all the ingredients and to make up for that ,vendors fortify them with vitamins. I dont trust vendors are going to pick top of the line non-synthetic , natural food based vitamins. Instead of benefiting they can cause harm in the longer term. I would rather just eat raw Almonds or Organic Tofu/Soy and then separately take those vitamins.

  • Mary

    Hi!! I recently went to earth fare in Charlotte to find the homestead non-homogenized milk but they only had homogenized? Do you use a differebt kind now or was I looking at the wrong place? Thanks!

    • That is still what I buy and that is still where I get it! They could have just been out temporarily? The new shipment comes in every Friday morning.

  • Jan

    I was looking into Homestead Creamery and wondering if you knew if the feed they use is GMO. I’m considering making the switch from our store brand fat free milk but hesitant to buy it because it’s not certified organic.

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