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. Organic Valley or Horizon) 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:

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525 thoughts on “Milk 101: Whole, Raw, Organic, Low-Fat, Etc.”

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  1. I generally drink 2% or whole milk, and buy from a Costco in some degree of bulk. They are highly organized and my guess is they keep their product at around 35 degrees (or less?) from practically out of the cow. I’ll buy four gallons during a shopping run and stick it straight into an insulated bag with a frozen item or two for the trip home, and then straight into my 35 degree fridge.

    I’ll generally finish off the fourth gallon about five or occasionally even six weeks later, and NEVER have a problem with the milk tasting even a tiny bit off… and I’m a fussy milk drinker: When I was younger I’d offend people when visiting with them because I’d automatically sniff their milk before pouring a glass. LOL!

    Having grown up in an era (1960s/70s) when milk from the supermarket seemed to start “turning” with a week, I’ve wondered how much of the difference is due to better shipping/refrigeration/care techniques and how much might be due to possible HTP (Hi-Temp Pasteurization) or other improvements in general pasteurization/farming/dairy techniques. (Note: I’m NOT talking about UHTP (ultra-hi-temp) milk… just regular store gallons)

    Is it perhaps the case that most general commercial milk nowadays is regular HTP without note being made of it?

    Anyone else have similar experience with their regular milk lasting a long time?

  2. I prefer local raw milk. I can detect the change in flavor when the cows go on to pasture in the spring. I find raw stays fresh longer than pasteurized and if it does go “bad” it becomes sour milk which is great to bake with.

    1. Hi Amy, what I’m not quite clear on is it states in another article that ‘any’ type of pasteurization knocks out 99% of the enzymes and denatures proteins. So… if this is the case what then is the great significance of drinking lower pasteurized milk vs the common store-bought UP organic milk? Especially when considering upwards of 7.50 a gallon. And if heating denatures proteins, should we only eating other foods like eggs raw, non-scrambled, etc etc. What about yogurt for smoothies? Should that also be low pasteurized too??

  3. Our family has moved away from cow based milk due to dairy allergies in our children. The doctor told us soy has higher calcium content than almond or coconut, but we are concerned with the soy as most beans are alcohol soaked during the cleaning process. So we do our best to bridge the gap by eating more leafy greens to help increase their calcium intake. Any thoughts or suggestions on this?

  4. Fabrice Dejean

    I live in Los Angeles. No farms or cows here. My food choices are permanently limited by what I can afford. The price tag is what I look for, on every product. Now let’ s face it: Worms are a disgusting form of bacteria that inhabit us, I hear you all. The counterpart is that for all of us, eating, without any exception, is vital. Since the label war remains however “secondairy”, for those living on the raw side of life, is there an economic issue to the problem rather than bacterial intake that we can’t surpass? Finances rarely changes throughout life, neither do bad habits. Beautifully, mother Earth provides all kinds of ways to get the nasty out of any farm, with consumming other farming products that are also very affordable. It’s the perfect balance, for once. Because let’s be real, our bodies are our temples wherever our fortresses are located.

  5. When you say the following regarding full-fat dairy: “And to offset the switch to full-fat dairy we also reduced our consumption a bit”, what do you mean by reduced a bit? How much full-fat dairy do you and your family drink on a daily/weekly basis?

  6. My family tried raw milk here for a bit because my hubby is lactose intolerant and he could actually drink the raw milk with no issues! I grew up on milk like this as a kid and loved the taste. Unfortunately, about a month into it, our whole family (he and I and 3 young girls) all got sick. We thought we had the stomach flu but after a week of vomiting and diariah we decided to go to the dr and we all tested positive for cryptosporidium :( even my poor toddler! We were getting the Milk from a local farmer who we trusted and this still happened to us! I was so upset to find out we had gotten sick from the milk (was tested) and hubby decided after that experience we would stick with pastuerized milk for our family ;) we do drink full fat through!

  7. Steven Philip Nissley

    Thank You! You just confirmed my decision was right to move to South Carolina over North Carolina!

  8. I own part of a cow share here in TN; the legal way to get raw milk. That said my particular farm also sells the un-homogenized version (still pasteurized) at Earth fare right next to Homesteads milk & they sell at their ice cream @ Farmers markets and in Earth Fare. The Dairy is A2, not A1 milk & there is a difference. Any one ever try Cruz dairy Milk?

  9. I grow up drinking milk straight from the cows. My grandfather had a ranch, in which my dad worked for. Every Thursday my dad will bring about 5 gallons of raw milk and we boiled it for about 4 hours to kill the bacterias. We even had “the milk pot” that prevent the milk from spitting out when boiling …. My mom used the “fat” to make butter and cream!!! I missed my old day back in Venezuela… I used to dislike the smell of boiling milk but now I missed it a lot.-

  10. The most commonly stated objection to raw milk is that folks are afraid of getting stuff like salmonella because the milk isn’t pasteurized. However, cows on 100% pasture do not harbor salmonella (etc.) in their gut, as do cows kept in the barn and fed corn. If the cow doesn’t contain a pathogen, neither will her milk.

  11. We drink raw milk. Farms that produce it are held to a high standard as far as cleanliness goes, and I’m more concerned about the important enzymes and proteins being ‘cooked’ out of my milk, then I am worried about bacteria making my family sick ( people have consumed raw milk for hundreds of years, prior to the creation of giant dairy farms, with little issues at all). Glad you found a healthy milk that you like for your family!

  12. @Karen

    For the record. There was no such thing as “milk fever”. The only ill health effects there were surrounding milk in the old days were safety concerns because of “unsanitary practices” and usual allergies that people can have for just about anything. Raw milk has NOTHING to do with so called milk fever. Secondly. You are shooting yourself in the foot here and being hypocritical as well. You state you want milk homogenized because of the “look”. So it doesn’t bother you that milk becomes very unsafe after it is homogenized? Because it does. You just donlt realize it because it comes in the long run. In the form of cancers and other diseases.

    1. Elizabeth Ward

      Where is “milk fever” mentioned in this article?
      She never states that she wants homogenized milk. She states that she chose Pasteurized, Non-Homogenized, Whole Milk (from Grass-Fed Cows). What studies have been done that support your claim that homogenized milk causes disease? It would be good if people would actually read with comprehension before shooting off.

    2. Sir, I think you may be replying to the wrong article. She said she preferred non-homogenized milk and she never mentioned milk fever or the’ look’ of the milk.

  13. Mrs.Leake, I love your book! what do you think about whole milk containing milk but also vitamin D3? Should I try to find whole milk containing only milk? Or does that not exist? Also, the only whole milk yogurt I’ve found so far says whole milk on the front but the ingredients say:cultured pasteurized NONFAT milk and also cream. Should I not buy it again because it contains cream? And because it’s nonfat I guess too? So confusing! Thank you!

  14. Hello
    I have a 8 month formula baby. Unable to get breast milk. So what milk would be best for him. When he goes off formula?
    Thanks Lisa!!!
    Love your cookbook :)

  15. What are your thoughts on Fairlife milk? It says it’s Ultra filtered, and not sure if that’s a good thing, or not. My husband is lactose intolerant and this milk does not bother his stomach.

  16. I’ve drank nonfat milk most of my life. However, I want to switch to whole milk knowing the heakth benefits & I’ll drink much less as I’ll drink a cup (more like 12 oz) to quench my thirst or as a ‘snack’, in addition to meal time. I haven’t convinced my husband on switching because it is more expensive. I feel he too would drink less because it’s much more filling. Advice?

  17. Love this article. We live in the upstate of SC and drink Happy Cow Milk….we were sold when we found them. It’s like you said closest to raw without the few concerns of raw milk. I like it better and my kids love we get to go directly to the farm and buy it. I always told my husband we couldn’t leave he upstate because we wouldn’t be able to drink milk anymore from anywhere else You give me hope it is in other places haha

  18. Currently I buy Organic Whole Milk, I think the latest carton is Horizon Grassfed Whole milk. I want my milk pasteurized. There were many young children that used to die from milk fever before pasteurization, my mother’s two older sisters among them. I also prefer my milk homogenized I don’t like the look of the milk and cream separating or the taste. Not much of a milk person at all really so I am very picky about the kind I drink.

  19. Homestead Creamery milk is wonderful! I have had the opportunity to tour their facility and farm, very clean, small family operation. They truly care about the animals and the quality product they are producing. The taste can’t be beat. The fact that they use glass bottles is an added bonus. Nice hardworking people, great product.

  20. This has been so helpful for me! My husband and I usually buy 2% milk, but we do not buy organic. If just buying standard, store-bought milk, would you say it’s still healthier to drink whole milk? Or are both equally bad? I would love to eat organic foods, but it’s just not feasible for us financially right now.

  21. Kristen Assell

    Lisa I have 2 kids with mild dairy intolerance, so we have always been an almond milk family. I always buy Silk which has no carcingeen (sp?) but lots of additives. I have tried making my own organic but they wont drink, wah! what brand coconut or almond milk do you purchase for your family or recommend for your recipes that call for milk? PS can’t wait for the new cookbook!

    1. Hi … I don’t know if it will help but you can make a really delicious coconut milk using shredded coconut and water … Strain and refrigerate. You can even add 1-2 dates and sweeten it a bit. It’s basically rehydrated coconut and so its full of nutrients and healthy fats :)

  22. RAW? we need to get our terminology in order, just call the “milk” you buy at the store “pasturized milk and what I drank as a healthy child MILK, and stop calling real food “organic” and start calling,the crap food poison

  23. Priscilla Whisler

    Some folks do better with goat milk because of different casein (protein molecules) content – the part that is often to blame for intolerance. I used to live near a goat farm and my kids grew up on pasteurized goat milk. The taste was not too bad if the goats were eating the right plants. When they got outside the fence and ate wild greens the milk had the “goaty” taste many avoid. For the past 10 years we have not had any source of farm milk.

  24. I’m confused how there can be ingredients in a product that’s aren’t listed. Is this legal? Is this common? How do I find out which products are doing this?

  25. Maybe I am showing my age here (I am 49 years old), but you really never heard of raw milk? WOW! While I was growing up, we never bought milk at the grocery store, we drove to one of our local farms and purchased milk and eggs every week. I never had processed milk until I went to school. I was in for a rude awakening, at the age of 5, I realized that processed milk was “gross”. Once the small dairy farms closed in our area, we started purchasing processed milk, thus I stopped drinking milk.
    My younger daughter is lactose intolerant. She is careful about drinking milk and making sure she takes lactaid pills when needed. We visited my Mom (who married a dairy farmer once I became an adult) and she drank raw milk, but forgot to take lactaid pills. About an hour after drinking the raw milk, she realized that she did not become sick from it. I did the research and found that some lactose intolerance is caused because of the process of the processed milk. So when she wants to drink milk, we purchase raw milk so she can enjoy it without getting sick.

  26. I grew up on raw milk (on a farm-we had our own cow). The adjustment to processed milk was rough. We have switched to whole milk but my grocery options are Food Lion and Harris Teeter.

  27. I love Homestead Creamery milk. But I’m wondering if the corn they grow and feed the cows is non-GMO. Assuming that they follow organic practices, that answer should be yes.

  28. Dear Lisa, I love your blog post. May I share the link to your post on my website? Everything you have written is exactly what I preach in my practice and I have a lot of my patients follow your words of advice. I would much appreciate the chance to have your write up linked onto my post. Lastly, every one of my patients who has made the change to homestead creamery milk has not turned back. The only problem is, EF runs out of the milk quicker and quicker :)

  29. With the drought in southern California affecting the price on almonds, and articles showing that almond milk contains very little almonds (if any), I personally have been making my own almond and cashew milk. I make these fresh milks every 3 days. You can really taste the difference, and I know exactly what goes into them. It can be as simple and cost effective using a blender and buying a nut bag (i find that the filter bags for the spray paint machine from the hardware store work really well); or to using a juicer such as any of the Omega VRT juicers. I felt that my health was worth it and invested in a good blender and the Omega VRT. When you have fresh almond milk, you will question what exactly is in store bought almond milk, and when you see how creamy cashew milk is, you will not miss real milk (i am lactose intolerant so i have no choice).

  30. We drink whole raw milk straight from a certified dairy here. (If we had neighbors who had extra raw milk to share, then we’d be happy to do that. We would love to have our own cow.) I like that it retains enzymes, the natural chemicals in proper balance without destroying them, and retains vitamin C. Our local dairy follows all required disinfecting procedures to keep external bacteria from entering the milk.

    Before moving to raw milk, we started with our local dairy’s low-temperature pasteurized milk. As your article did not discuss LTP milk, I will explain: Low-temperature pasteurized milk is heated to 145 F and held at that temperature for 30 minutes. This is not feasible for large-production companies. They’d have to do smaller batches and it would take longer to do. The reason for the 145 F is that, while it still destroys the natural vitamin C in the milk and does some damage to the milk while killing any potential pathogens, it retains important enzymes.

    Occasionally, we still have homogenized whole milk from the grocery store, but rarely. I would like to get some low-fat milk from the dairy for making homemade mozzarella.

    The girls love being the first to get milk from the new jug to be able to get more cream in her milk. I definitely prefer non-homogenized milk as the process of breaking down the cream to suspend in the milk is another damaging process to the milk. As cream is fat, and just like oil, it separates from and floats on water (or the dissolved components in milk) because 1) fat is non-polar, thus separating rather than dissolving, and 2) once separated, as it is less-dense than water / milk, it floats. It only mixes through utilizing an emulsifier or by artificial processes.