The Untold Story of Milk

The quick answer:  Today’s milk may not be the perfect food.


Mankind has safely consumed the milk of cows for millennia; that’s how I read the history.  The Bible raises no issue with milk; in fact, the Promised Land is described as a land of “milk and honey.”  The early Pilgrims enjoyed milk from goats and cows.  Some of what we know of them comes from the division of the common herd in the 1627 Division of Cattle.  A century ago milk was described as “the perfect food” and people were encouraged to drink a quart daily.  But this was all before the Industrial Revolution turned the family cow into a business.  The industrialization of milk caused rising concern about the healthfulness of modern milk.  Look at what thoughtful people are writing:

  • The Milk Book:  The Milk of Human Kindness is Not Pasteurized, Dr. W. C. Douglass II, 1984/2003
  • Don’t Drink Your Milk, Dr. Frank A. Oski (past chief of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins) 1996
  • Milk-The Deadly Poison, Robert Cohen, 1997
  • The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows and Raw Dairy Products, Ron Schmid, 2003
  • Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk, Keith Woodford, 2007
  • The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated: The History, Politics and Science of Nature’s Perfect Food, Ron Schmid, 2009
  • The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, David Gumpert, 2009
  • Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health, John Robbins, David Gumpert, 2010

The Industrialization of Milk

Here are three positions on milk:

  1. Milk’s bad:  Some, especially vegans, argue against the consumption of animals and their products, including milk.  No other mammal, they note, drinks milk beyond the first year, or consumes milk from another species.
  2. Olden is best:  Others argue for dairy products from healthy animals, processed traditional ways (no pasteurization, homogenization, manipulation of fat content, etc.). 
  3. Milk’s OK:  The dairy industry spends billions encouraging us to drink modern milk, including versions altered to reduce fat.

To understand what is right for your family, we should look at the history.  The drive to reduce the cost of mass produced food is unrelenting and can lead to unhealthy practices—this is a repeating problem with modern food.  Beginning in the 1800s, distilleries for alcoholic drinks were located near cities and a market was sought for the used, fermented grains.   Someone had the bright idea to build dairies next to the distilleries and feed the discarded mash to milk cows.  So cows were taken from the pasture to the city and fed distillery swill.  The cows weren’t healthy and neither was the milk—they couldn’t make it into butter or cheese but they could sell it as “swill milk.”  During this time child mortality was on the rise; by 1840 half the deaths in the major east coast cities were of children.  Milk wasn’t the only cause, but swill milk from diseased cows was judged to be a significant cause of infectious disease in children and concerned citizens cried for reform.  

Pasteurization:  Two reform programs were proposed, which typify how we approach food today.  The programs had contrasting philosophies but the men behind them had something in common—each had lost a child to milk-borne disease.

  • Dr. Henry Coit, in 1889, proposed that milk be collected only from healthy cows using sanitary methods, and that dairies that met the necessary hygiene standards be certified.  A committee of volunteer doctors was assembled to implement a certification program.
  • Mr. Nathan Straus, a co-founder of Macy’s, proposed a solution that was simple, cheap, and quick: pasteurize the milk. 

 Pasteurization won out—simple solutions usually do—and combined with other public health improvements (potable water and sewers) child mortality began to fall.  Lost in the public debate were several key facts:  First, pasteurization reduces bacteria but does not sterilize, so standards had to be set for how much surviving bacteria milk could contain (quite a bit is allowed).  Second, though pasteurized milk has fewer bacteria, it still contains the carcasses of dead bacteria, a cause of immune system inflammation.  Third, the heat of pasteurization changed the nature of milk; for example, it reduced the available vitamins, as well as enzymes beneficial to the lactose intolerant.  This was a new product, untested by time.  In California a doctor named Francis Pottenger placed cats on a diet that included either raw milk or pasteurized milk.  The cats eating the raw milk were healthier and lived longer, but few have heard of Pottenger’s cats. 

The battle over pasteurization left a legacy in public health departments—for generations afterward, they would vehemently oppose the right of citizens to consume raw milk.  The government vendetta against California’s Alta Dena Dairy that forced them from the raw milk business is a matter of record.

Homogenization:  Milk could now be shipped further distances, thanks to the longer shelf life from pasteurization, so the separation of milk and cream became a cosmetic issue.  The solution was homogenization, a process where milk with cream is pumped at high pressure through very small holes.  The fat is broken into smaller fragments that now remain in solution, rather than floating to the top.  These fragments tend to quickly oxidize but if the milk is then cooked (pasteurized) this is prevented, though you now have a new fat molecule unproven by tradition.  The public resisted homogenization in the beginning, but it gained acceptance in the years around WWII.  Some have linked the rise of atherosclerosis and heart disease to pasteurized and homogenized milk, but other risk factors, including increased intake of sugar and trans fats (from the hydrogenation of processed vegetable oils), and the rise of cigarette smoking confused the issue. 

Milking Pregnant Cows:  It’s known that milk and dairy are a risk factor for breast cancer, which raises a question about bovine hormones in milk.  The practice of milking cows deeper into the next pregnancy began in the ‘20s when milk prices were low and dairymen were struggling.  It was another of those untested experiments to reduce cost.  Hormone levels, including estrogen and progesterone, soar as pregnancy progresses, and are in the milk we drink.  This introduces a new hypothesis:  Is there a link between certain cancers (breast, prostate, colon, ovarian, and testicular) and these ingested hormones? 

Gammaa Davaasambuu, a PhD from Mongolia, is studying the subject, using data from Harvard’s Nurses Health Study.  Read about her work hereIn the US cows are milked 300 days a year, deep into the next pregnancy; as a result this milk contains 33-fold more hormones (per one study).  In Mongalia, by tradition, cows are milked just 150 days, so milk is relatively free of hormones and is neither homogenized or pasteurized.  Dairy foods account for 60-80% of the hormones we consume in the US.  When Monigolian children are given our milk, their serum hormone levels rise.  How to reduce hormone ingestion, until more is known?  Drink less milk.  Another option, drinking reduced fat milks (hormones are carried by the fat) may introduce other problems, discussed in the next post.

Milk-related diseases:  It’s strange this popular drink has so many disease issues not resolved by proper scientific research.  Here is a partial list of disease concerns that merit further study:

  • Milk, or a virus in milk, is thought to play a role in juvenile type 1 diabetes.
  • Children's runny noses and chronic ear aches are sometimes linked to milk intake.
  • Homogenized milk is theorized to be a cause of atherosclerosis of coronary arteries.
  • Osteoporosis, in the Nurses Health Study, is linked to milk intake.  Milk contains calcium, but it also contains protein that tips the acid balance and interferes with calcium absorption.
  • Higher intake of milk, as noted, is tied to increased risk of certain cancers.
  • Intolerance and allergies:  About ¾ of the world population is lactose intolerant or allergic.

Monsanto and rBGH:  The controversial use of Monsanto’s recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST, or rBGH) to increase the milk output of cows is well published.  Thanks to the public's response, the practice is in decline so is not discussed in this post, except to note the power of an aroused public. 

The Bottom Line

I like whole milk.  I enjoy it on my breakfast compote and it’s also a good drink to cleanse the mouth of flavors (most flavors are fat soluble).  I like cheese too.  So what is my position on milk?  Here it is:

  1. I drink it sparingly; I’ve started to date cartons I open, to track my intake.  My goal is to drink less than ½ gallon weekly.  This goal reduces animal protein intake per Healthy Change #20: Eat twice as much plant protein as animal protein.
  2. We try to buy less-processed milk.  We haven’t converted to raw milk yet, but I’ve tried some and liked the taste.  I wish it were more available, which would also make it more affordable.  One thought on price:  If you look at the price of dairy (cheese, butter, and milk) in the circa 1936 ad from Heavy’s Market shown here, you’ll see they’ve actually dropped in relative price over the 75 years.
  3. I dream a dream, that one day we can all buy milk like the people in Mongolia—from healthy pasture-fed cows, free of bovine hormones, not homogenized, and not so full of bacteria it must be pasteurized. I would pay more for good milk.

Please comment:  Share your milk experience.  Have you a solution to the possible problems of modern milk?

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.

Photo from the State Library of South Australia.

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Reader Comments (46)

I bought raw milk once. It tasted like licking a cow. It was pretty bad. I went back to Walmart milk for a while, but then I never drank it because I didn't like the taste of that either. Now I buy organic whole milk. It almost kills me to pay $6 a gallon but at least I drink it. Sometimes I buy cheap milk to cook with. I don't know if I will ever try raw again though. Blech.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKris

Kris, nice to hear from you. We'll talk about organic milk in the next post.

November 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

We drink whole raw milk and we love it. I believe it tastes much better than the regular milk. Both my children were bottle fed because I was unable to breast feed and they both had problems with formula and I was told that they were lactose intolerant, since I have had them drinking raw milk, they have no issues. We drink it sparingly because it is so expensive and I prefer them to drink as much water as they can. We go through about 1/2 gallon every 5 days and we mostly have it in the mornings on top of the breakfast compote. We buy organic pastures raw milk from Sprouts. I would much rather them have this raw milk than soy.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke W

We only buy raw milk now. It is $7.50/gallon. Ouch. I also get raw cheese. The cheese isn't all that expensive when compared to the orange stuff at the store, as it is $5.50/ pound. I could get non homogenized organic milk, but it is actually more expensive than the raw milk! My kids don't like the organic milk as much as the raw milk. My husband wasn't able to drink milk for years due to adverse reaction. Now that we use raw milk, he is fine. My kids' eczema improved drastically after the switch as well. I personally don't drink milk, haven't since I was probably 6 years old. My kids only drink it on occasion. I am grateful to have found a source of raw milk. It has made a huge difference in our lives. We would try to avoid dairy if we could no longer get raw milk.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

If processed milk has so many ill effects, are all those same effects passed on to dairy products (cheese, cream, etc.)? Or does the processing of cheese, for example, somehow override some of the ill effects of the milk?

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenae

Hot button issue in our house since my grandpa was a dairy man! He founded the BYU Creamery and set up the dairy program. I prefer to buy my milk from BYU since it's local and doesn't have the significant volume of milk from multiple cows (reducing the exposure to issues originating from a massive operation.) Although I had fresh, raw milk straight from the farmer when I lived in Germany (the family I lived with picked up their milk directly from the farm and used it right away,)

I prefer smaller dairies that at least pasteurize their milk. Too many scary, scary stuff in raw milk for me. In fact, there's a big story right now in the Utah news of a significant salmonella break out from one purveyor of local raw milk cheese.

One tip: Don't pay more for the same milk. Look at the stamp on your milk gallons at the store (49-10, etc.) The same stamp comes from the same location, regardless of what the brand is (so often the store and name brand are actually the same milk.) We don't drink a lot of milk these days, I encourage water for thirst. Also, I nurse my children well into toddlerhood, so we don't usually need a lot of cow milk on hand for daily drinking.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarina

We are currently living in Outer Mongolia and most of the milk we have seen comes from goats. We see very few cows. I haven't considered buying milk here because we don't buy it at home and Almond Milk is available at several stores. The yogurt that they make here is interesting and you can buy it in wet and dry forms. The dry is by far the most popular and I can send you a photo if you'd like. It is pretty nasty stuff, but makes great "fast food" for those out on the steppe. The Mongolians also credit this dried yogurt to the health of their teeth. (Which isn't sayin' much!) There are very few vegetables here. The locals grow onions, garlic, potatoes, cabbage and some winter squash. Other vegetables have started to be imported from China, but they are too expensive for most people.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

We stopped drinking regular milk and now only use coconut or almond milk when needed. I've heard that goat milk is easier to digest and it's supposed to be healthier. I eat goat yogurt although it is still pasteurized. I wish I could find it raw.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDi

I've been waiting for this post and it did not disappoint! I'm glad to know some of the history and technicalities of pasteurization and homogenization, it does highlight that trend of developing a new (untested) fix for a new problem, instead of just going back to the way that has worked for ages. With all the troubles that milk has given my nursing baby I was growing quite wary of it, but I'm glad to have more information on raw milk, and thanks to a previous commenter, where to get it as well. Thank you Skip!

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenaMalia

Carina, thanks for the tip on identifying the dairy milk comes from. As it's all the same, buy the cheapest milk that carries the stamp. Very helpful. I'm going to check the milk in our local stores.

Anne, living in outer Mongolia? What an adventure. Any interesting recipes you'd like to share?

Denae, some of the issues go away. Lactose disappears in fermenting of yogurt or cheese. Cheeses that age over 60 days are self-sterilizing, so pasteurization isn't needed.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I am allergic to (cows') milk so can't drink it or eat anything containing it. This is actually a great way to eat a healthy diet, because virtually all junk food/highly processed food contains milk or milk products.

If you are trying to avoid milk, you have to be careful because it is added to so many foods (crackers, bread, sauces, soups, even many prepared vegetables), especially if you eat out. It is really shocking how prevalent it is, and most people are completely unaware. I wonder what effect ingesting all this milk from other sources (beyond drinking it) has on health?

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

I have pretty much stopped drinking dairy milk since I became a vegetarian in June, much for some of the same reasons you listed above. I'm not convinced it's the worst thing I could put into my body, but I know it's not the best thing either, and it's been a relatively easy switch for me.
My husband, on the other hand, all but refuses to drink water and prefers milk or sweet tea (oh, the joys of having to deal with the way your spouse was raised). He's come a long way from drinking multiple Dr. Peppers a day, but the sweet tea is almost as bad. His mom's convinced him to use Splenda instead of regular sugar because of the calories, but I think sugar is the lesser of two evils.
Anyway, do you have any thoughts on dairy milk alternatives, like soy or almond milk? I've tried soy in cereal, and it's fine, but one of my friends was telling me soy milk and products are much less regulated and can be worse for you than dairy milk because of all the impurities.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAbby

Abby, good question regarding milk alternatives. The beautiful wife puts OJ on her breakfast compote; she thought it strange at first but has come to like it.

We haven't had a post on the place of soy in the diet. I believe nearly all soy is genetically modified so I'm wary. There are reports of soy allergies, but even traditional foods cause allergies for some.

Perhaps our readers will share their ideas on milk alternatives.

November 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thank you Skip for this comprehensive article ! I cannot imagine how much time you spend to document your posts. This is very helpful. I'm impatient to read the next one on organic milk, as that's the only one I drink.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

When we took conventional dairy out of our diet a year ago--I was amazed at how quickly my childrens' eczema and asthma cleared up (something we had been battling for years was cleared up in a couple of weeks). We have recently added a small amount of raw milk (mostly in the form of keifr) to our diet. The raw milk from a local store (Real Foods) is amazing. In fact, my son wouldn't even touch the organic milk I bought after drinking the raw milk. Also, did you know milk is seasonal (spring and fall)? That was one of the most interesting facts I learned this year. . .My goal for our family is to drink raw forms of dairy (mostly fermented) sparingly and seasonally.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbandreoli

Great article... I appreciate learning this as my son just turned one and I'm debating with myself about giving him milk (he's still nursing and will continue to indefinitely). In response to something you had written a couple posts back, I would love to see one of your weekly menus for all meals. I'm having a hard time making sure my family gets everything we need even with my weekly dinner menu planning. Thanks!

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara

Hi Skip,
I would like to hear how your wife keeps her calcium intake high enough without drinking a lot of milk. I have cut back on drinking milk but as a 40+ female, I am concerned with the lack of calcium in my diet. I like to depend on foods for nutrients and not vitamin pills but the level of calcium in non-dairy foods is quite low. You have to eat a LOT of kale to meet the rda! My daughter has an intolerance to milk and drinks soy, but I am not sure that is the healthiest choice for her either. It is so confusing! Thanks for your posts.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulie-Lynn

Julie-Lynn, you ask an important question because years of advertising by the milk industry has left people thinking drinking milk will protect from post-menopausal osteoporosis. I'm not a doctor so what follows isn't medical advice; I'm just one person trying to make sense of how to eat right and be well.

In our post, "A Fresh Look at Bone Health" ( we reviewed the various factors known to influence bone health. We definitely need calcium and calcium from milk may be helpful, but around the world the countries that have the least bone fractures drink the least milk. There are other factors, like how much exercise they get, how much vitamin D from the sun, etc, but milk isn't a guarantee of bone health.

There is an excellent article by the guys at Harvard's School of Public Health, complete with references, if you want to learn more. ( Best to you.

November 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Tara, we'll post some menus in the future. We won't do it for every week because that implies that 1) we all need the same diet, which isn't true, and 2) that there's a proven optimum diet, which isn't true either. What we do know is a varied diet of whole foods, minimally processed, without too much meat, has traditionally been a good solution. We're just trying to undo the dietary errors of the last century, really.

Basically we eat the breakfast compote (see recipes) most days, with the fruit changing with the season. Lunch can be anything, but I try to eat a tuna-salad sandwich several days of the week, and include fruits and vegetables other days. I also like homemade bread with melted cheese, tomato slice, and spinach.

The dinner menu for this week: Monday we had the stir fry I got at TJ's with leftover chicken; Tuesday the beautiful wife made a soup of TJ's root vegetables (turnips, parsnips, rutabaga) with some turkey sausage, and oven-baked potato wedges on the side. Wed. we will finish the woup with a rare treat, BLT sandwich on WW. Thursday we plan to use some hamburger from the freezer to stuff a bell pepper, plus a salad. Friday we drive north to San Francisco for the girl's annual Christmas ornament shopping trip and we'll eat out with family. Saturday night we usually have some simple, like an omelet. Sunday dinner isn't planned yet, but we have an eggplant and might try the recipe the Basque Lady suggested in a recent post.

We had to work at making menu writing a habit; we begin by opening the freezer to see what needs to be eaten, then the refrigerator, and finally the pantry. Life's more orderly when we write a menu, even if we don't follow it exactly, and we save money too.

November 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Tara, my son will be 2 this month and he doesn't really drink milk. When I weaned him (at 17 months) I tried to give him some raw milk but he just preferred water. So he drinks tons of water. He also eats tons of food. I cook with raw cheese, raw milk, and raw cream and he gets some that way. He is not thin and has plenty of energy. He is not sick more than other kids. I don't honestly believe that children must drink milk. My sister give her son (who is a month younger) any milk either, but for different reasons (she is not about healthy eating like I am, but isn't horrible either). He is very thin. He has plenty of energy and is growing fine. I think (and this is really just personal opinion) that they push milk because so many kids don't eat a healthy diet and it "has calcium and is vitamin fortified." So it is a universal "food" they can push on the population. It doesn't need to be replaced with milk substitutes either. I think they are far worse than drinking real milk!

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

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