Recently, I was asked for my opinion in a post on Facebook about milk specifically and animal products in general. It reminded me what a complex subject the topic of milk can be, especially for a seemingly simple whole food.
Milk has been a prized food for thousands of years and is very nutrient dense. Milk from properly fed cows is rich in vitamins and minerals in addition to its protein and essential fatty acid (omega 3) content. It contains vitamins A, C, D, E, K2, folate and a range of B vitamins including B1, B2, B5, B6 and B12. The list of minerals is long – it contains calcium, iron, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, selenium, manganese, copper, zinc and iodine and it also includes cancer fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). If you begin to consider fermented dairy like yoghurt, then there are additional benefits for the gut in terms of probiotics. Not surprising then, that the bible speaks so highly of milk, to the extent that even God himself describes the promised land as one that is flowing with milk and honey and it was the beverage of choice for Abraham to serve to the three messengers.
But is this nutrient profile actually what you’re getting when you buy a bottle of milk in the supermarket?
It inspired me to get my thoughts down to share with you. Hopefully this will help others to make sense of the milk / no milk question and make an informed choice for both yourself and your family about whether or not to include it in your diet.
How is Conventional Milk Produced?
In order to understand the topic, I think it’s really important to understand how conventional milk is produced. And by ‘conventional’ I mean the standard milk that most people buy in the UK.
Living Conditions and Food
Conventional milk comes from what’s called ‘standard intensive milk production’ from Holstein-Fresian herds, which are the black and white dairy cows we’re used to associating with milk. Selectively bred for their high milk yield, they produce an average of about 12,000 litres of milk per year or 22 litres per day; this is compared to more traditional breeds like Jersey and Guernsey dairy herds producing around half that.
This increased milk production puts a huge energy demand on the cow’s body, meaning that supplementing the grass and silage they would normally eat is necessary to keep up with the energy demands of producing so much milk. According to the Food Standards Agency this could be cereals, compound feeds (manufactured, often pelleted, mixtures of single feed materials, minerals and vitamins), or by-products of the food and brewing industries such as the residues of vegetable processing like rape and soya meal, maize gluten feed (the residue of starch extraction from maize or corn), spent grains from brewing and malting, and by-products of the baking, bread-making, and confectionery industries.
In terms of housing, whilst there are government guidelines on the quality of living conditions for dairy cows, it does not stipulate whether or not cows should be permanently housed and in fact provides minimum standards of hygiene and accommodation for permanently housed cattle, thereby recognising that this is sometimes the case. ciwf.org.uk says “In the UK most dairy cows still have access to grazing on pasture for part of the day in summer, but more cows are being kept indoors for longer, or even all year round. This is known as ‘zero grazing’, and is increasingly used in North America and parts of the UK for large and high yielding herds. Where they do not have access to pasture, cows are often housed in sheds. Some sheds have outdoor yards.” So, most cows in the UK have some access to the outdoors but how much varies widely and it could just be to a concrete yard.
I found a recent press release from Waitrose really interesting. It states that “Waitrose is already one of the only supermarkets to give its dairy cows access to pasture during the grazing season in the summer months…but this move puts in place a minimum benchmark of at least 100 days [grazing] a year.” This is good, but presumably if Waitrose are the only major producer doing this, then most conventional dairy cows in the UK are getting less than 100 days of grazing per year. Some none at all – and that’s not good ethically or nutritionally.
Pasteurisation and Homogenisation
Once the cows are milked, the milk is processed to ensure the contents of every bottle are the same; milk is transported to a central processor, where it’s combined and then pasteurised.
Pasteurisation is when milk is rapidly heated to about 72°C for 15-25 seconds and then rapidly cooled to below 3°C in order to kill bacteria and prolong the shelf life. What is not commonly known is that pasteurisation kills the good bacteria as well as the bad, meaning that instead of souring (which is still useable) the milk will simply putrefy. It also reduces nutrients, destroying a substantial portion of the vitamins A, D, E and according to some sources, like the Weston A Price Foundation, B6 and B12 are completely destroyed alongside the beneficial enzymes that help to digest the milk. Other research has shown a decrease in the minerals manganese, copper, and iron.
Once pastuerised, the milk is then separated into its cream and liquid components, and then re-blended to create the required amount of fat for whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, after which most is also homogenised.
Homogenisation is a mechanical process that forces the fat globules of the cream through tiny holes under immense pressure to break them up into smaller globules. This means that the fat can distribute evenly through the milk, preventing the cream rising to the top and giving the milk a whiter appearance. It has absolutely no nutritional benefit and is performed solely to give a more appealing look for the consumer. Some research published on pubmed indicates that homogenisation reduces our absorption of the calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals it contains whilst other research has identified a potential link between homogenised fats and heart disease.
Hormones and Antibiotics
Cows in the UK are not injected with hormones to boost their milk production, despite what you may have read. This practice is banned in the EU and has been for over 15 years (almost 30 in the UK). It is commonplace in some other countries though, including the USA, but not here.
The use of antibiotics in the UK and EU is strictly controlled by law and is only used to treat individual, sick animals when necessary and on the advice of a vet. Antibiotics certainly aren’t blanket applied to all cows in a herd. When antibiotics are used in the UK, usually to treat mastitis, they are inserted directly into the teat and the cow’s milk is discarded for the duration of treatment (usually 3 days) and then for a further 4 1/2 days; known as the withdrawal period. This ensures that no antibiotic residue passes to the consumer.
Does milk contain pus?
I have seen so many videos, articles and posts circulating social media, usually from a vegan perspective, telling us that milk contains pus cells. But is that true?
Firstly, there is no such thing as a ‘pus cell’. Pus is a protein rich fluid containing dead white blood cells and bacteria that accumulate when the immune system is fighting an active infection; they are the ones that have died in the battle. In the case of the udders on a cow, this would most likely mean mastitis.
Now, any mum who has breast fed will tell you that you’ll know about it if you have mastitis. The signs are pretty clear; swelling, redness, hot to the touch, hardness and pain. It’s the same for cows – the farmer would know if mastitis was present. The milk produced would also be discoloured or clotted in most cases. When cows are milked, they are visually checked for such infection and a small amount of milk is expressed to check for changes in consistency. If these show any abnormalities, then the milk does not pass to the consumer whilst the cow is treated.
The real truth that is somewhat perverted is that there are white blood cells in milk, called somatic cells. Somatic cells are living white blood cells and so are quite a different thing to pus. Their presence is normal and they are in human breast milk also, however an elevated white blood cell count is bad since it shows that the animal is fighting an active infection. For this reason, in the EU the somatic cell count in milk is monitored to determine whether or not it’s fit for human consumption. In the UK the average white blood cell count in milk is around half the maximum limit enforced by the European Commission (which is 400 million somatic cells per litre).
In America, the picture is a little different and I believe this to be the source of most of the misinformation in the UK. Cows in the USA are more likely to secrete pus into their milk because not only are the Holstein-Fresians (like our conventional dairy cows) producing a lot of milk, they are also injected with hormones to boost milk production and fed a diet of high protein soybean meal, both of which increase the incidences of mastitis. Add to that the big cattle feed lots you hear about with cows raised in total confinement and the risk of infection is greater still.
A1 versus A2 Milk
You may or may not have seen A2 milk on the shelves in supermarkets and wondered what on earth that means. Or you might have heard that A2 is better for you but you’re not quite sure why. Either way I will explain.
A1 and A2 refer to different types of the same protein called beta-casein, which makes up the majority of protein in milk. A1 and A2 are essentially identical apart from one bond in the chain of amino acids, which differs between the two types. A2 is largely considered to be the original protein and A1 a later mutation. There is anecdotal evidence to say that A2 milk resolves cow’s milk intolerance due to the way that the amino acid is broken down during digestion, but as yet there is not a lot of real evidence to say that A2 specifically is necessarily healthier, although consuming milk from Holstein-Fresians has it’s own issues as I’ve already described.
Milk from Holstein-Fresian cows contains about 85% A1 protein. More traditional breeds like Jersey and Guernsey produce milk that is about 40% and 95% A2 respectively.
Organic versus Conventional Milk
Organic milk is produced without the use of pesticides on pastures or in feed and with higher standards of animal welfare than non-organic. For milk to be certified organic the cows must spend the majority of their time outside and cannot be permanently housed, which means more grazing on clover-rich pasture.
Importantly, because of the better living conditions supporting healthier herds, antibiotics are needed much less in organic farming versus conventional. This is because the more confined the living conditions of the cows, the higher the risk of disease and therefore the greater need for antibiotic use. You can see a footage showing organic dairy cow living conditions here.
The Problem With Conventional Milk
Nutritionally speaking, the way that conventional milk is produced poses several issues. As I mentioned before, conventional dairy cows have very little to no access to pasture for grazing. This will affect the health of the animal as well as the nutritional profile of the milk. Not to mention the fact that there is no prescribed list of foods that a farmer should supplement with and therefore it’s largely unknown what the cows have been eating. The less grass and silage, the less nutrients contained within the milk to begin with. In terms of welfare this makes me uncomfortable to and I believe it is unnecessary to raise herds in this way.
Not surprisingly, one study published earlier this year found organic milk was healthier than non-organic, with 50% more omega-3 fatty acids and higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and other nutrients. This will be due to the welfare standards and diet that organic certification forces.
Once you add pasteurisation and homogenisation to an already inferior quality of milk, conventional milk looks a lot less like the health food it is advertised to be.
I firmly believe that the first priority for milk is diet and welfare of the cows. This gives the best nutritional profile of the milk to begin with. An easy measure for this is to buy organic, but there are certainly farms without organic certification that work to the same standards or even better if you are willing to look for them. Always buy whole milk to ensure that the fat soluble vitamins, namely A,D and E are still present.
Whilst organic milk is usually homogenised, it is relatively easy to find non homogenised too – Waitrose’s organic milk is not homogenised along with some of the Jersey milk they sell. I never buy homogenised milk.
For me, I like to also avoid pasteurisation and so I consider the best milk choice to be unpasteurised, non-homogenised milk from healthy cows (or goats) eating their natural diet (with happy faces like the one in the picture at the top)!
But Wait, Is Raw Milk Safe?
Many people worry that unpasteurised milk is not safe. I did too initially, however as stated in this article in the Telegraph last year, the Food Standards Agency admits that not a single case of illness has been attributed to unpasteurised milk since 2002; that’s almost 15 years. Not even one. Although based on American figures, Chris Kesser has some good articles on the subject of raw milk safety here. From what I can see in the food poisoning figures published by the FSA, poultry and fresh produce are the most likely food groups to cause food poisoning with tens of thousands of cases every year – I couldn’t see dairy even listed.
I personally buy unpasteurised, non homogenised milk from Geurnsey cows online from Hurdlebrook farm in Somerset for drinking, namely for our children. When I don’t have that or for cooking/making yoghurt I use Waitrose Organic whole milk, which is pasteurised but not homogenised and is from Ayeshire herds.
A note about dairy alternatives
It certainly is possible to obtain all of these nutrients from other foods, meaning that it isn’t absolutely necessary to consume milk if you feel convicted not to and there are many dairy alternatives to cow’s milk available on the shelves today. Without going into too much detail in this post, some are healthy and some aren’t. Avoid soya like the plague and check the ingredients on the others; many brands are full of fillers and gums that you do not want to eat!
Do you drink milk? Was this information helpful? I’d love to hear what you think…