Milking Your Dairy Decisions

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

Buying a container of milk for your family is more complicated than it used to be. We help make it easy.

Once upon a time, buying milk was a simple task. But today, you can buy plain milk, organic milk, or hormone-free milk. All come at 4 different levels of fat and in a number of flavors. Yet with the many choices available, surveys tells us adults in the US are not meeting the recommended daily servings of milk, and more and more children are not drinking enough milk.

Which is the best milk to buy? If you are only talking about nutrition, nonfat milk is the winner. It has all the nutrients with none of the fat and fewer calories than whole milk. Whole milk has 8 grams of fat in an 8-ounce serving, 2% milk has 5 grams, and 1% has 3 grams. All milks provide high quality protein and are a good source of the vitamins A, D, B12, and riboflavin, and the minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and zinc.

Calcium tip –1 glass of any type of milk equals 300 milligrams of calcium. You can get the same amount of calcium if you swap: 8 ounces buttermilk, 1½ ounces cheese, 8 ounces kefir, 2 cups cottage cheese, 6 ounces plain yogurt, 8 ounces of flavored yogurt, 3 cups frozen yogurt, or 2 cups of ice cream. Many of the substitutes are higher in fat, saturated fat and calories making nonfat milk the all time best calcium value.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has approved a hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) for use in dairy cows. Many people are concerned about the safety of this hormone. Cows naturally make BST in their bodies but with injections of synthetic rBST they are able to produce more milk. The more milk a cow produces, the greater the chance that her udder will become infected, requiring the use of antibiotics. Now the problem is two-fold – hormones plus antibiotics.

Using rBST negatively affects the health of cows, and some believe that is reason enough to stop buying milk from treated herds. Treating cows with rBST does increase the levels of insulin-like growth factor in their milk. But this growth factor is a protein, so like any other protein we eat, it should be broken down in the digestive tract. But a tiny amount of proteins we eat can slip into the blood stream without being broken down, so there is a small possibility that this could happen to the growth factor protein found in milk.

There are concerns that the hormone residue in cow’s milk is promoting early puberty. Puberty has been occurring earlier in all developed countries but this is far more likely to be due to better nutrition and the increasing incidence of childhood obesity than the hormones used on dairy cows.

Good news — because of consumer pressure many dairies have stopped using rBST and today two-thirds of all dairy cows in the US are rBST-free. Most of the dairies that do not use growth hormones proudly announce on their labels “Produced without the use of added growth hormones.”

When you buy organic milk you are assured the cows are raised without added hormones or antibiotics. Organic milk and regular milk are nutritionally equivalent; however the organic milk you buy may not come from a US dairy. The demand for organic dairy foods is so high, and less than 5% of the current US dairy herds are organic, so producers are outsourcing to foreign countries. If you are concerned about the safety of imported foods, your ecological footprint, and the impact of food miles on our resources, these issues need to be considered as well when buying organic milk. The favorable economic incentives to change over to organic farming are persuading many dairy farmers to convert to organic production. This should make more US organic milk available in the near future.

Would raw milk be a better option? The only difference between raw milk and regular pasteurized milk is the amount of bacteria found in the milk. Raw milk can be very dangerous, especially for pregnant women, children, or those with a compromised immune system. Proponents feel it’s more nutritious and contains antimicrobial properties. Neither is true. Raw milk can’t kill off bacteria naturally, and it is so likely to be contaminated that it can’t be shipped across state lines in the US and is prohibited for sale in many countries around the world.

When it comes to milk keep it simple – aim for 2 to 3 servings a day and use nonfat more often.

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