The Milk Wars

The quick answer:  Serious questions have been raised about the healthfulness of modern milk.  Until better milk is available, we drink milk sparingly.


I started this post early on Memorial Day, a time set aside to honor those who have passed, especially those who died at war.  As part of my observation, I reread Stephen Ambrose’s WWII story about Easy Company of the fabled 101st Airborne, A Band of Brothers

Reading Band of Brothers caused me to ask a question:  “What causes more premature death—war or the modern diet?”  Actually, it’s no contest.  In the U.S., far more people die from the modern American diet (MAD).  Worse yet, Food Inc is unconscionably doing its best to spread this diet to the rest of the world. 

I love the Gettysburg Address, especially this line, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war . . . .“  Well, if you are doing something to promote a healthy diet, even if only in your home, you’re a warrior in the greatest war of our time—the battle to reform the modern diet.  The remarkable thing about this war is that the good guys are . . . women, mostly.

Factory Food

The industrialization of food in the last century changed the very nature of what we eat.  The roller mill was combined with bleaching to make sweet, long-lasting, white flour depleted of natural nutrients. Rice was polished from brown to white, likewise reducing nutrients.  A new kind of fat, Crisco, the replacement for lard, and more toxic than we realized, was created by hydrogenation.  Ditto for margarine.

These foods—each heavily marketed to a gullible public—had a few things in common: 

  • Value was added in a factory, rather than on a farm. 
  • The removal of perishable nutrients greatly extended the shelf life.
  • They had a modern color for food—white.
  • A traditional commodity was made more profitable by first adulterating and then marketing it as a brand.

This post addresses another traditional food industrialized in a factory:  Milk.

The Industrialization of Milk

Last year, in an excellent post titled The Untold Story of Milk, we reviewed how milk, a traditional food, was industrialized into a form of questionable healthiness.  The main steps in this process:

  1. Cheap feed:  Cows traditionally eat grass; a cow needs 1-2 acres of pasture depending on the forage.  In the early 1900s, to save land and money, dairy farms were located next to distilleries and cows were fed the remains of grain used to make liquor and other waste products.  Naturally, unhealthy feed led to unhealthy cows, and diseased milk.
  2. Pasteurization:  Rather than maintaining healthy cows to get healthy milk, the decision was made to pasteurize milk, which reduced, but didn’t eliminate, the pathogens.  This heating process changed the nature of milk and has never been fully accepted, for various reasons.
  3. Hormones in milk:  During the hard times of the ‘20s and ‘30s, it became common to milk cows deep into the next pregnancy, thus exposing consumers to higher levels of bovine hormones.  In addition, Monsanto introduced synthetic versions of these hormones to improve output, though this practice is mostly discontinued thanks to public criticism.   A researcher has looked at the issue of milk hormones—a suspected risk factor for prostate and breast cancer—you can read more about it here.
  4. Homogenization:  Pasteurization also extended the shelf life of milk, which allowed shipping longer distances.  Because cream tended to separate, homogenization was introduced.  Basically, homogenization breaks the fats in milk into fragments, so the fat remains mixed in the milk and doesn’t float to the top.  There are still troubling questions about the healthfulness of these man-made fat fragments.
  5. Reduced fat:  In the ‘60s the false idea was advanced that fat was unhealthy so the fat content of milk was reduced.  Because this changed the appearance of the milk, the government allowed milk processors to improve the look with additives like powdered milk and excused them from noting these substances as ingredients. 

Infertility and Reduced Fat Diary

The healthfulness of reduced fat milk has not been adequately studied however a 2007 study of 18,555 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II by Harvard researchers, found troubling issues with infertility due to reduced ovulation.  Women who drank two or more servings of low fat dairy foods per day, were 85% more likely to suffer from infertility, compared to women eating low fat dairy just once a week.  Women who consumed no low fat dairy food had an even lower risk  (25% less than the once per week group). 

What To Do

I like milk but until healthier milk is available, I’m mainly drinking water.  I try to limit myself to one quart of whole milk per week.  I’ve tried raw milk and wish it were more available, especially from grass-fed cows.  The beautiful wife avoids milk; she even has the curious habit of putting orange juice on her breakfast compote. 

What would it take to have the healthy milk of our great-grandparents?  One answer is to get your own cow.  Another solution is to have an Amish friend who still farms the olden way.  Otherwise we’ll all have to wait until the government lets enterprising dairymen offer healthy milk from pasture-fed cows.  In the mean time, we follow this Healthy Change:

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (22)

What do you recommend for toddlers?

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

So if I do have access to grass fed raw milk would you advise drinking it? What about grass fed raw milk for children? I'm leaning toward this for my family.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee

Great post, thanks Skip. If you are a fan of raw pasture fed milk I highly recommend Organic Pastures Dairy milk since (I believe) you live in California. You can check their website for locations near you (Sprouts, farmers markets, etc.) They are totally legit and exceed standards. They actually opened up their farm last weekend to consumers to "camp with the cows' and my family and I attended. I thought I would like it but I was truly blown away by their farm and all their products. I still drink milk sparingly, but I am very picky and only drink raw or vat pasteurized when I do.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

What is the evidence that homogenization is harmful in any way? Also, can't a perfectly healthy cow eating only grass still get sick just as as a perfectly healthy human can still get a cold, etc.? Do you feel like there would NEVER be a worry about pathogens in raw milk as long as the cow had was grass fed and kept in a healthy environment?

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolly

For toddlers, have them eat food instead of drinking milk! And water, let them drink plenty of water. My son is 2 1/2 and he is growing well and healthy- and he doesn't drink milk except on occasion. The push to have young children drink milk is only because the government needed a staple that they could provide/push on low income families who weren't providing proper nutrients to their young children anyway, sort of a one size fits all toddlers sort of food (in my opinion). We do have access to raw milk from grass fed cows, but it is expensive, so we use it more sparingly than most. I have found that we have far less issues with eczema and allergies since we switched to raw milk and cheese and cut back our intake.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

My kids love milk. We try to buy organic (raw isn't available in our area), but I know it isn't ideal. What about substitutions like almond milk? I definitely prefer it to cow milk, but I've never heard whether or not it has the seedy underbelly cow milk has.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Berrett

What about yogurt, etc.? Is all of this Greek yogurt everyone is eating these days just as problematic?

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

As a 18 year Licensed Family Childcare Provider, we have been hit with new guidelines regarding milk and children. We are required to serve "fluid milk" with each meal, and for everyone over the age of 2 it *must* be no more than 1% milkfat, as designated by the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program. You have no idea the ruckus this has caused.

Additionally, they have deemed no nutritionally equal substitute, so no soy, almond, coconut or rice milks make the cut. I am suspicious of Food, Inc, and would suggest that nutrition is trumped once again by money and super-powered lobbyists.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizA

Thanks for the post.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I have always been a skeptic when it comes to milk. LizA - I appreciate your response! I can't imagine making my kids drink mils with each meal. I think that is crazy! Just a way to get consumers to spend their money. We use milk sparingly and I am tempted to give it up altogether. I have nursed all my babies past 12 months and harldy ever gave them milk in sippy cups once they were weaned. I intend to do the same with my 8 month old.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterheather

Liz A—It's a travesty but I fear the USDA is no more than a front for Food Inc.

Megan and Dee—I defer to Laura and Heather; they've walked the talk.

Emily—Camping with organic cows? How cool is that? We'll try Organic Pastures Dairy.

LizA—I'm shocked that you're required to feed foster children homogenized and pasteurized reduced-fat milk at EVERY meal. The influence of the dairy industry is amazing. What's healthier than water?

Megan—Great question, about yogurt. We'll follow up with a post on yogurt.

Sherry—I'm a little shy of the milk substitutes, though some people have no choice if they want a milk-like substitute.

Holly—you ask two good questions. Homogenization was introduced when little testing was required and a complete study has never been funded, to my knowledge. So it's more an experiment with the public as guinea pigs. Common concerns include allergenicity and a possible role in inflammation and atherosclerosis leading to heart disease. Heart disease is multifactorial—there are various risk factors. For some thoughtful discussion on homogenization Google the term or go here: http://www.raw-milk-facts.com/homogenization_T3.html

Regarding sickness in cows, no person or animal is immune to sickness but statistically, the healthier they are, the less likely the chance and the severity of illness. There will always be risk in life but we're trying to align the odds in the favor of our readers.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSkip

Holly, if you find your milk locally you can get to know the farm practices- raw dairies should know their cows and know when they are sick, and they should not sell milk from that cow. They also have to test their milk for bacteria and the limits of bacteria in raw milk are far more strict than even pasteurized milk.

Skip, when I provided daycare (back when my husband was in college 7 years ago) I participated in the USDA food reimbursement program. They also required a glass of milk at each meal- and if you didn't follow their strict requirements you didn't get reimbursed. They didn't actually have to drink it, but it had to be served to them. I thought it was just ridiculous as well.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I thought this information, from what I believe is the same study, was worth noting...

"Conversely they found that women who ate full-fat dairy foods, including ice cream, more than once per day had a 25 per cent reduced risk of infertility due to ovulatory disorders compared to those who ate full-fat dairy foods only once a week."

So I am left to wonder, is it the dairy that is causing the problems with infertility, or the lack of fat?

Another quote: "The researchers concluded that "High intake of low-fat dairy foods may increase the risk of anovulatory infertility whereas intake of high-fat dairy foods may decrease this risk".

Any thoughts on this?

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeeAnn

Hi Skip:
What about goat's milk? Same issues as cow's milk? That's what we have switched back to for our children.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLP

We are lucky enough to have access to good raw milk here in Utah and drink it sparingly, but I'll admit the risk of food poisoning from it does make me a bit nervous.

Just read this article that talks about calcification and vitamin K2:

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey


Thanks for the reference to Dr Kate Rheaume-Bieue's book, "Vitamion K-2 and the Calcium Paradox."

May 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I stopped drinking milk myself when I was a teenager. After that, I couldn't tolerate it. My kids drank so much of it, yet, when I finally couldn't, in good conscience, serve it anymore, it only took a short time for them to get used to it being gone. Now they don't like it at all. I would definitely try raw milk if I had access to it. I'm convinced that the simple hygiene of keeping the cows udders clean woud be all that would need to be done. (Think about it, we don't worry about breastfeeding giving our kids germs!)

Anyway, thanks for an awesome post. Glad to know we're not alone in the conclusions we reach.

June 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I have noticed a "rash" of eczema cases among the young kids in our neighborhood and wondered if milk has something to do with it or specifically a deficiency of good fats. I don't know but I have access to raw milk where I live and my friends who have switched swear by it. I don't believe milk is necessary for our health and cringe at those celebrity advertisements for it. But, if you do like milk, raw is well worth the extra cost.

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLC

Thanks for the great post. I was surprised that my son's pediatrician asked a pointed question at his last well child visit about his milk consumption (assuming this was a positive thing). I answered that he does drink milk, but left out the info that it's raw. Actually, my husband and I are not 100% comfortable with the safety of raw for kids yet, but want our family to drink it instead of the other. So, I drink a glass when we get it and the kids can have it the next day. Otherwise they eat yogurt made from pasteurized, organic whole milk. So, I'm anxious to read your next post.

When I can't easily get raw milk here, I get it at my in-laws farmer's market in PA, bring it home and freeze it for later. Just thaw it in the fridge over the course of a few days.

It's worth mentioning that my skin has changed so much and quickly! Friends have spontaneously commented on it. Although I didn't have skin problems before, now it looks amazing. It's interesting to be able to actually see the effects of your diet so clearly.

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

Thanks for the informative post on a difficult topic! My family stopped drinking milk last December because raw milk in southern Florida is $14/gallon! And I knew we needed to stop drinking the homogenized, pasteurized stuff. I've been amazed at how healthy my kids were this winter ( and trust me, there are still plenty of viruses going around even though our winters aren't cold!) My children had only one bout of sickness--quite bad coughs, but not accompanied by any sort of runny nose. In fact, we haven't seen a runny nose around here in months! I don't think it's a coincidence. Anyhow, we make our own almond milk to pour over oatmeal in the mornings, and have even been succesful baking with it. I really just want our own milk cow someday!!! In the meantime, my children drink way more water than they used to, since milk is no longer an option--and that 's definitely a change for the better.

June 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

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