The Transformation of Milk

Milk is the first food that we consume upon being born. It is also one of the most highly nutritious, as long as the mother is eating a healthy diet. Breast milk is so well balanced nutritionally that infants are able to survive and thrive on it alone for six months to a year. Long ago, various indigenous societies discovered that the milk of their domesticated, grass–feeding animals, such as cows, sheep and goats, was an efficient and healthful food source. Milk consumption led to the discovery of butter, cheese, yogurt, and various other dairy products that are so well known to us today. In India, the Middle East, and Europe, dairy products were consumed as excellent sources of protein, enzymes, antibodies, saturated fat, fat–soluble vitamins A and D, calcium, phosphorus, and a moderate amount of cholesterol. When soured or fermented, such as in yogurt, they also provided lactic acid and healthy bacteria. Cow’s milk is not quite as suited to the human body as human milk, but still abounds in health benefits.

For over two thousand years, cow and goat milk consumption continued as a standard and even essential part of human life. There are many allusions in literature that reference the importance and value of milk in society. For example, just take a glance at those old standbys, the Bible (“land of milk and honey”) and Shakespeare (“milk of human kindness.”) But over the course of the 20th century, thanks to modern processing and manufacturing methods, the quality of milk has greatly decreased, to the point where many of the health benefits it used to provide have been replaced by health risks. In this article, I’ll talk about the difference between milk and dairy products in their natural, traditional state and the way they’ve been transformed into the processed dairy products that we find in most supermarkets.

1. Raw vs. pasteurized. Pasteurization, named after its inventor, the famous scientist Louis Pasteur, is a process by which food is heated to the point where most microorganisms present in it are killed. This invention was subsequent to Pasteur’s initial discovery of microorganisms and germs as disease–causing agents. In the late 19th and early 20th century, pasteurization of milk became more common in conjunction with the growth of urban areas. While in the past people had lived close enough to rural dairy farms that it was possible to get fresh, raw milk from grass–fed cows, as the populations and scope of cities grew this became more difficult. Some urban dairies were formed but their cows were more likely to suffer from health problems as a result of crowding, poor diet (not being pasture–fed; in fact, they were often fed on the leftover swill from distilleries next door!), and bad hygiene. These cows gave milk that was of poor quality and sometimes diseased. Pasteurization was a way to prevent the disease–causing microbes in the milk from harming people. This solution was much cheaper than improving the health and living standards of the cows themselves, and therefore improving the quality of the milk.

As dairy farms consolidated into large corporations, these corporations developed factory farms with assembly–line procedures as a way to produce milk more economically. Just as in the case of the urban dairies, the health of the cows in these factory farms suffered, since they had little opportunity to exercise, were packed in tightly together, and were fed a fattening carbohydrate diet of grains instead of nourishing grass. Also, since most milk production had been consolidated into a small number of these massive factories, in many cases milk now had to be shipped across the country to reach the consumer. The possibility of the fresh, raw milk enduring all these conditions and still ending up disease–free, and then on top of that surviving a long trip to the supermarket without putrefying, was very slight. By the end of World War II, pasteurization of dairy products was federal law.

In the time since then, however, it’s become evident that pasteurization does more than just kill off harmful bacteria. In my February article on digestion, I wrote about the importance of digestive enzymes for digestive health. Raw milk, even without being fermented, has over 60 enzymes, some from healthy bacteria, that help us digest both the milk and other foods as well. Digestive problems such as stomachaches and constipation are eliminated in the presence of these enzymes. When raw milk is deliberately fermented, it gets even healthier, with more lactic–acid producing bacteria and therefore more enzymes (which is why controlled souring, giving us yogurt and sour cream, seemed like such a good idea thousands of years ago).

One function of these digestive enzymes is that they help the body absorb calcium. Everyone’s heard about the high calcium content of milk and how therefore milk is a good food for healthy bones and preventing osteoporosis. But if we don’t have the enzymes to absorb it, the calcium won’t do us any good. To worsen the matter, the high protein content of milk means that it makes the blood more acidic. If the blood becomes too acid, the body uses its own calcium stores to neutralize the acids. In this way too much milk can actually contribute to osteoporosis. In raw milk, the absorbable calcium balances the acidifying effect.

We’re also all familiar with lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar in milk that many people have trouble digesting. The enzyme lactase, naturally present in raw milk, converts lactose into lactic acid, which is very easily digestible. Usually people who are lactose intolerant are those who are descended from races of people who did not drink milk historically. Those whose ancestors did have milk as part of the diet can usually handle the lactose, but would handle it even better if lactase was also present.

Digestive enzymes also help us digest fat. One of the most appealing and delicious qualities of milk is its high fat content. Milk fat contains vitamins A and D, which are also very important for overall health. Without the enzymes, the fats don’t digest well and contribute to heart disease and obesity. The hundreds of reduced–fat milk products out there would not be necessary if our milk was raw.

Finally, the healthy bacteria in raw milk also help us build a healthy bacterial environment, such that if bad bacteria do show up in our food, our own antibodies are strong and numerous enough to fight them off.

It makes sense intuitively that mother’s milk, whether it is from a cow or a goat, a whale or a cat, or a human being, is perfectly balanced and healthful in its natural state. It has to be a complete food for the child who nurses on it. Pasteurization is just one of the many ways in which milk is processed into an unbalanced food.

2. Homogenized vs. non–homogenized. In a container of natural milk, the fat or cream separates and rises to the top, and what’s left (mostly water) stays on the bottom. Homogenization is a process by which milk is forced through tiny orifices under high pressure, breaking the fat globules into tiny fragments that are very dense and much less likely to cream together and float to the top. Homogenization was originally introduced as a way to evenly distribute cream in a large quantity of milk before the milk was divided into gallon and half–gallon jugs. It was only cost–effective for large producers of milk because of the expense of the homogenization machinery. It also had the added benefit of eliminating from sight a residue of dead white blood cells and bacteria that sank to the bottom of milk containers, post–pasteurization. Unfortunately, this high–pressure blasting of milk through tiny holes makes the finished product even harder to digest. The human body does not expect the fat in milk to be in tiny hard globules and has trouble digesting it. Homogenization in milk has been linked to the clogging of arteries in heart disease. Non–homogenized milk tends to taste better, though it does need to be shaken before drinking.

3. Organic vs. conventional. The label “organic,” in the case of milk, refers to a set of standards for the cows’ diet. Organic milk comes from cows that have been fed organic feed (that is, feed not sprayed with pesticides or contaminated with artificial fertilizers). Organic, in the case of animal food, also means that the animals have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. The chemicals, antibiotics and hormones, like pasteurization and homogenization, are generally employed for economic reasons. Artificial pesticides and fertilizers are cheaper and more efficient than their natural counterparts when it comes to growing the vast quantities of grain need to feed the cows in factory farms. Antibiotics help cows survive the unhealthy environment of the factory farm, which procedure, again, is more cost–effective than simply giving cows space and freedom to move. Hormones can artificially force the animals to produce more milk than they would otherwise, which is another benefit for the manufacturer. Unfortunately, many of these substances—chemicals, antibiotics and hormones—end up in the finished product and can have debilitating effects on the human body, including allergies, decreased fertility, a weakened immune system, and increased susceptibility to cancer. Milk from cows so sick that they need a constant diet of antibiotics doesn’t sound very appealing in any case.

4. Grass–fed vs. grain–fed. Although the requirements for cow’s milk to be labeled “organic” include “access to pasture” for the cow, that doesn’t always mean the cow actually gets to spend most of its time out on the pasture, feeding on grass, clover, and other green plants. Look specifically for milk that says that the cows are grass–fed. Cows’ stomachs are designed to handle the job of breaking down these tough vegetables. Although they can eat grains, cows tend to get overly fat on them, and grains are not as nutritious. Milk from grass–fed cows contains more vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids, which makes the milk much healthier for the person who drinks it. Just as important as eating your vegetables is making sure the cows that produce your milk are doing the same thing!
I emphasized above how pasteurization, homogenization and so on were introduced for economic reasons. There’s nothing wrong with making such choices, but in this case it doesn’t seem like the consumer has a good deal, even with the current low price of milk, because of the decreased nutritional value of the milk. To recap, some of the health concerns associated with conventional milk include digestive disorders such as gas, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease; osteoporosis; arterial blockage; reduced fertility or infertility; allergies; lactose intolerance; decreased immunity; and cancer. Considering how much money is spent on health care, it seems like we would save money in the end by paying a little more for locally produced traditional milk from small family farms.

Traditionally, the milk we drank was always raw, non–homogenized, organic, and grass–fed. Raw milk can be dangerous if the cow that it came from was sick or dirty. Modern sanitation technology, however, has made it much easier to maintain good hygiene on a small dairy farm. Raw milk, if it comes from a responsible farmer, may be healthier than it ever was before. Nevertheless, its sale is still illegal in most states. For the time being, what I recommend is looking in the health food store for organic, grass–fed, non–homogenized milk, butter, yogurt, and cream (Cheese made from raw milk, sold by Organic Valley, is also available in some stores). Even if pasteurized, dairy products can still be healthy foods, supplying fat, protein, vitamins, minerals and a sense of happiness and contentment. To balance out the lost bacteria and enzymes, just make sure to include in your diet some of the raw fermented foods I mentioned in my February article on digestion. This is especially important if you are descended from races of people that did not traditionally consume milk.

One reason why I chose to write this article now is that spring is almost upon us. Since milk is a cool and damp food, it’s best to cut down on it as much as you can during the spring, which is a time of year that is also cool and damp. Just as the snow is melting outside and rivers are swelling with water, similar processes are happening in your body, with increased production of mucus from natural detoxification. Dairy products in the spring are associated with colds, congestion, ear and sinus trouble, and the like. Summer, being hot and dry, is the best time for milk; in the cold and dry winter, milk can be good when it’s cooked in foods or seasoned with warming spices such as cinnamon and ginger.

Considering its status as an outlaw, I’d like to clarify that I am not writing about how great raw milk is just to discourage people. Conventional milk, in moderation, and balanced with other foods, won’t kill you. However, pay attention to your consumption and see if it is correlated to any health concerns you may have. In the meantime, people are finding ways to bring back raw milk availability. Right now, one of the most effective strategies for acquiring raw milk is called a Cow Share. You’re allowed to drink raw milk if you own the cow yourself, so some small farmers offer people the opportunity to buy “shares” in their cows, and thereby have access to the raw milk. If you really like milk, you can probably find a cow share program near you. Two websites, realmilk.com and rawmilkfacts.com, both have more information and databases of where cow share programs are happening. eatwild.com is a database of local, grass–fed meat for the large part, but they also list farms that have raw dairy products.

Judging by the remarkable progress and popularity of organic food, I believe won’t be long before traditional, raw milk is as common and widespread as it used to be. By that time, I won’t be surprised if we see a decrease in the incidence of many of the health concerns listed above. The average person will be able to enjoy dairy products both as delicious, high–fat foods and as health foods, just as our ancestors did. Note: that goes for raw milk ice cream as well.