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. 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 :)

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 :)

  9. 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

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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 :)

  16. 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).

  17. 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.

  18. I didnt realize raw milk could be considered illegal! Wow! Our family drinks raw milk. We get it free from our family owned farm. I have terrible stomach discomfort when I drink any processed milks from the store. Even whole milk which I thought would have been ok but it wasn’t. Raw milk does not irritate my stomach in the slightest! And I love a tall glass with a little ice with dinner! So for us it’s raw all the way :)

  19. I buy organic whole milk for my family and have been urging my mom to switch from organic non-fat milk to whole milk for years. She says the benefits of whole milk don’t hold true for senior citizens and that all she hears from media and doctors is that adults over the age of 65 should be drinking non-fat milk. Can you tell me if this is true or not true so, I can pass on the knowledge please? Thank you very much for your time.

  20. Raw whole milk all the way. Since I can buy directly from the farmer, I have not looked back. Less expensive than grocery store milk too. There is no way to explain how delicious it tastes and it could not be any fresher. There are so many ways to eat local food now and the farmers deliver it to you!

  21. Homestead creamery milk is not from grass fed cows. My lengthier comment was deleted for some reason by moderators?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Erin. I didn’t see a lengthier comment from you and there is not one held in moderation. It could be that it just didn’t post for some reason. It is my understand that their cows are pastured/grass fed during the warmer months and supplemented when grass is harder to come by.

      1. I live nearby the Homestead creamery and enjoy all of their dairy products. I think that the milk and cream are so fresh tasting. However, I do know that the cows are not grass fed during milking years. You may want to check into this if having grass fed milk is important to you

      2. Crud! I have been supplementing my 18 month olds sippy with this while at work. Any way we can. Get clarity on this? The blog says they follow organic practices, so if the cows aren’t grass fed, are they at least fed a non-gmo/organic diet?

  22. i drink almond milk and my son drinks coconut milk. I had breast cancer and have seen doctors who believe that dairy products cause a build up of bacteria that can cause cancer.

  23. Cindy Condrich

    I’m wondering why you went with the Homestead Creamery Creamline vs. their homogenized whole milk. Other than leaving the fat to settle to the top are there other benefits? I’m looking at starting up with Lakeview Farms delivery service here in Charlotte (Earth Fare is just a bit inconvenient) and was wondering if you’d ever looked into their service. Thanks!

  24. Any suggestions on an easy way to mix the cream back into the milk on the Homestead Creamy creamline milk? We love it here but it’s so hard getting the cream mixed back in through the mouth of the jug.

  25. I recently found a soup recipe for evaporated milk. I think I can just use whole milk, but what are your thoughts? Evaporated vs. whole milk?

  26. 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?


    1. 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!

    2. 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. :)

  27. 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!

    1. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

    1. Jilly,
      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.

      1. 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.

  30. 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!

  31. 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!

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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,