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

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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  1. |

    We are able to get raw milk where we are, through a system that has been set up in our state. We have limited farms that are still opting to sell(by honor system) but we can still get it.
    We have opted to go with raw milk in our home, but I was raised on raw milk, and so has our home for most part. I do not recommend it for everyone, if you are going to switch to raw milk take it slow. Understanding your body, and needs of your body will be what is the deciding factor.
    I worked at an Ayurveda center at one time, and raw milk was provided for us,they would heat the milk(not to a boil) to remove any bacteria from the cow, but that was it, nothing added, or extracted, just heated.
    Note: in Ayurveda they drink raw milk, but always heated, you would have your milk warm with some type of herbs.
    I think it’s great seeing the different options and ideas about milk, thank you,

  2. Darleen saunders |

    We drink whole organic, usually the store brand, as we figure it is actually the brand name one sitting next to it.
    But we are curious about raw milk. I know it can have pathogens, but here’s the deal, how many people does this really affect and how? Do you hear of people getting sick or dying from raw milk? No. At least not very often. I certainly would not give it to the elderly or immune compromised but it intrigues me.

  3. Tonya |

    We have been drinking raw milk for a few years now but we buy it from a state-certified dairy. Honestly, I don’t know how I’d feel about buying from someone uncertified who I don’t know. I believe it is healthier than pasteurized but I’d want to know the cleanliness standards of the dairy. Fortunately, here in Pennsylvania (the area of the state I’m in anyway), raw milk is about the same price as regular milk so cost is not an issue.

  4. Mel |

    Hi, we are near by in Virginia and also buy the Homestead Creamery milk. I noticed you put a picture of the gold capped one, is that the one you actually drink? I always thought that one was moreso cream than milk, and instead by the red cap. But I’d like to buy it if it’s actually drinkable as a even more whole milk. Thanks!

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy) |

      Hi Mel. The milk pictured is the milk she buys. :)

  5. Mindy |

    Kudos to you! I am so very blessed to live about 15 minutes away from Homestead Creamery. If you get the chance, it’s a great little place to visit (ice cream, get milk/buttermilk, half & half, etc.). If you call ahead, they do tours. And outback of the store is a great open-air sandbox (with a locally made, super cool digger the kids sit on and dig in the sand with). All while the goats poke their heads through the fence begging for a treat! The store also stocks a decent amount of locally grown/locally sourced foods and things. The gold top is what we use as well. It thrilled me to see such a fantastic company being talked about here. Just awesome!

  6. Jilly W |

    I’ve switched to organic milk for about 6 months now. It tastes SO much better! Like you, I started with low fat and made my way to whole milk. Even though I live in Virginia and not all that far from Homestead Creamery, I’ve had problems with what I bought from the national chain supermarket that carries it locally. What I buy from them doesn’t stay fresh very well. I’ve had to switch to another local but not as local brand, Farm Friend, carried by the online grocery that recently started delivering in our area. There is another, more local creamery, Mt. Crawford, but they only sell gallons so I don’t know much about them.

    • |

      I’m actually from Mt. Crawford Creamery. We do sell half gallons of our milk–always have since we opened in 2013. All of the milk we process and bottle comes off of our farm–we don’t truck it out to be processed and we don’t bring any milk in. So you know where your milk is coming from. All of our milk is non-homogenized and low temperature pasteurized. It’s as close to raw milk as we can sell in Virginia. For more information on our products you can come by our farm Monday-Friday 10 to 6 and Saturday 9 to 5 or you can visit our website. If you have any questions, let us know.

      • Jilly W |

        Thank you! I just finally found it in the half-gallon size at Kroger in Harrisonburg. Prior to that I had only seen gallons anywhere locally. I wanted whole milk but they were out so I got the 2% and it tastes really good. I’ll be lobbying for our online grocery to carry it too.

        • |

          Thanks! We have been trying for some time to get picked up by an online grocery.

  7. |

    We LOVE homestead creamery products! We’re just about an hour from the dairy here in Virginia. If you’re ever close enough, definitely stop by their scoop shop and contact them about doing a tour! Their farm is beautiful.

  8. |

    My doctor just told me I need to stay away from all dairy, regardless of whether it is organic or not, due to a suspected allergy. He also believes organic milk still undergoes too much “processing.” What do you recommend substituting for milk in your recipes? Your cookbook has been my kitchen “bible” and I enjoy cooking all your recipes. Your banana pancake recipe is one I use regularly, but it takes milk!

    • Amy Taylor (comment moderator) |

      Hi Linda. I use almond or coconut milk in almost all of Lisa’s recipes that call for milk. :)

    • Laurie B. |

      Linda, if you find dairy is what has been causing you trouble it may be the protein (casein) rather than the lactose. One of my children has this problem. I did a lot of research and found that goat, sheep and buffalo all have a different protein than conventional cow milk in the USA. If you can tolerate them it opens up a whole new world of products you can still enjoy as there are many cheeses you can still buy and use, along with goat milk for drinking and cooking. Believe it or not, there also are cows that people are genetically testing for the type of casein protein. Search for A2 milk protein for more information.

  9. Andrea |

    Great article. I would love to Pin this post for later reference, but since the site has been revamped, I don’t see the “Pin” logo on this individual post. Did I miss it somewhere?


    • Mary |

      Go to Pinterest and download the “Pin This” add-on button for your browser. Then you won’t need to ever worry again about whether there’s a button to pin something!

    • Amy Taylor (comment moderator) |

      Hi there. Take another look at the top left of the post. Our format has recently changed but it is there. :)

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