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All About Milk

by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager, Ceres Community Project


milkThere are so many kinds of milk available today and so much contradictory information about them, that it is hard to decide on which milk might be the most healthful for each of us. Here is a guideline to clarify some concerns and allow you to enjoy some milk, whatever kind works best for you!

Let’s start with the original milk:

Cow’s milk

Quality is everything here (well, quality is everything for all foods, but especially for animal products). Here is why:

High quality, grass-fed whole milk is a great source of nutrients, including vitamins B2, D, and B12; minerals iodine, phosphorous, and calcium; and phytonutrients such as antioxidants, including beta-carotene (which is a nutrient found in milk from  grass-fed cows only) and vitamin E (50% higher in milk from grass-fed cows versus grain-fed cows). It also offers a good amount of protein and healthy fats such as the much-needed omega-3s and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid associated with immune and cardiovascular health).1

If you don’t have an allergy* to milk (usually the casein in milk) and you are not lactose intolerant**, the milk described above is a safe and nutritious option, and I cannot stress enough the importance of it being grass-fed and organic. The next best thing is organic milk, which means the cows are raised without steroids, antibiotics, pesticides, or synthetic growth hormones. Organic milk is also usually produced with more sustainable practices, but it does not guarantee that the cows are in a pasture setting (they can still be fed grains) and therefore won’t have the same benefits as truly grass-fed cow’s milk. Nowadays it is also possible to find lactose-free organic milk, which is usually treated with the enzyme lactase to break down the lactose into more digestible forms of sugar.

*Allergy to cow’s milk can include symptoms such as recurrent ear infections, asthma, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis.2

**Lactose intolerance is a condition caused by a deficiency of lactase (an enzyme needed to digest lactose), and causes gas, bloating and diarrhea.

My favorite brand of organic grass-fed cow’s milk is St. Benoit. Their milk is not only organic, from pasture-raised cows, but it St. Benoit Milkis also vat pasteurized (low-heat instead of the fast, high-heatpasteurization in most other milks), it is non-homogenized*, it comes from a single-source farm, and it is sold in reusable glassbottles. They are also local to Sonoma County, which is another consideration when thinking of health and sustainability. To find a local farm near you, go to or


* The label "cream on top," usually means that milk has not been homogenized. This process can form calcium soaps (saponification), which can irritate the gut and decrease the absorption of protein, vitamins and minerals.3 The process of homogenization breaks down the fat globules in milk, reducing them in size so that they stay incorporated uniformly rather than separating as cream, and it is achieved by mixing large amounts of milk and then forcing the milk at high pressure through small holes.

The processing involved in creating lower-fat milks strips not only fat, but other important nutrients. Unless you need to severely restrict calories, or do not have access to organic milk, I recommend using whole milk. 2% milk has a reduced fat content by weight from the 3.5 % fat content in whole milk. 1% and non-fat milk have 99% or more of fat removed, and are usually fortified with vitamin A, which is lost with the removal of the fat (but this is usually accomplished using a synthetic form of the vitamin).

Raw Milk can be a wonderful whole food. Because it is not pasteurized, the enzymes in raw milk remain intact, along with other nutrients. Some experts say that pasteurization removes most vital qualities of milk, including the elimination of vitamin C, reduction of iodine and creation of insoluble calcium.4 Some people who have been allergic to pasteurized milk for years are be able to tolerate and even thrive on raw milk.

To sell raw milk, dairies must be certified and follow very rigid standards, which they are inspected for on a regular basis; however, raw milk sale is not allowed in some states for fear of bacterial contamination. According to Doctor Mercola, “the risk of foodborne illness from many other foods (such as pasteurized milk, mass-produced meat and poultry, and bagged greens) is much greater than from raw milk, provided the raw milk comes from a dairy that adheres to proper raw milk standards.”5

You can investigate more about raw milk and make your own decision based on whether you have access to high quality raw milk, its risks vs. benefits, your personal health status, and your values.

Commercial dairies would never be able to offer raw milk because mass production practices do not produce clean milk, making pasteurization a necessity in their case. Dairies producing raw milk are usually small, sell their product locally and let their cows graze on fresh grasses.

Commercial, non-organic cow’s milk is not recommended because it carries the toxins that the commercially raised cows are exposed to, including hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms in their feed.

In the words of writer Sarah Pope, “The most important thing for the consumer at the present time is to ensure that the farm they purchase their milk from has a healthy herd which grazes on well kept, unsprayed green pasture.”6

Chris Kresser, an Integrative and Acupuncture practitioner that I follow because he is research-based and very thorough in his writing, says that the bottom-line is no, we don’t need dairy and there is no such thing as a dairy deficiency. However, he states “That said, I do believe dairy products can be beneficial when they’re well-tolerated. Several epidemiological studies have linked dairy consumption (especially full-fat dairy) with positive health outcomes. While this does not prove causality, we also know that dairy contains healthful nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins, calcium, and conjugated linoleic acid, some of which can be difficult to obtain elsewhere in the diet. Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir can be particularly beneficial, especially for those with gut issues.” 7 Not to mention that dairy tends to be a good source of vitamin P (pleasure)!

This goes for whole milk and yogurt only. Chocolate milk and flavored yogurts are not recommended because of the added sugar in them.


Goat’s Milk

Goat’s milk is different than cow’s milk in a few ways. It does not contain agglutinin, so its fat globules do not cluster together, making the milk easier for some people to digest. Goat’s milk is also reported to contain more of the essential fatty acids linoleic and arachidonic acids, in addition to a higher proportion of short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids.8

As for allergies, goat’s milk contains only trace amounts of the allergenic casein protein, alpha-S1, found in cow’s milk, which is another reason that some people can tolerate this milk better than cow’s milk. It is said that the casein found in goat’s milk is similar to human milk, and some parents find their babies who react to cow’s milk are able to tolerate goat’s. Goat’s milk has slightly less lactose than cow’s milk, but it does lack some nutrients needed for growing infants8, so parents that are making the switch to goat’s milk should check with their doctor on how to add these nutrients with other foods and/or natural supplements (avoiding synthetic ones).

If you like the flavor of goat’s milk, this can be a very healthful choice. It is also a more environmentally-friendly choice because goats require far less space and food (grass) than cows.


Nut, Seed, and Grain Milks

There are many nut, seed and grain milk options in the store nowadays. The problem with most of them is that they contain additional ingredients such as preservatives, thickeners and sweeteners. The best and easiest option is to make your own, and if you have a blender, this is very easy to do. Making it fresh whenever needed is optimal because without the commercial preservatives these milks do not last more than a couple of days on average. The recipes below can be scaled to the number of servings you need.

You can find a printable version of these recipes in our recipes section here.


- Almond Milk:

Soak the almonds overnight or for at least 4 hours. Discard the soaking water and then put almonds in blender with one cup of filtered water. Blend until smooth. Use a cheese cloth or fine mesh sieve to filter the milk through. Enjoy!

You can even add a date, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, or ½ tsp pure vanilla extract for flavor.

The nut pulp can be used in baking or as a body scrub.


- Cashew Milk:

Soak cashews for at least one hour, then just blend until smooth (no need to toss the cashew water, so you can soak it directly in the blender). Cashews will fully disintegrate so you may not need to filter.


- Hemp Milk:

At Ceres we use Hemp Milk when a dish requires any type of milk. We do so because hemp seeds are very nutritious - they are rich in the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid ALA, provide all 10 essential amino acids with easy-to-digest protein (about 5g of protein per cup) and are a good source of calcium and other minerals. We use high quality shelled hemp seeds from Nutiva, and make our own milk in the kitchen.

1/4 cup hemp seeds (shelled) to 1 and 1/4 cup water

Combine the water and the shelled hemp seeds in a blender. Turn blender on high for 2-3 minutes, or until you reach your desired consistency.

After blending you can sweeten the milk by adding a couple of dates, raw honey, or organic vanilla. Blend again to mix sweetener. You can drink it thick or strain it through cheese cloth to remove the larger seed particles. The seed pulp can then be used as an excellent body scrub, or facial mask.

This recipe makes 1 1/2 cups and will stay fresh for 3 days in the refrigerator in a sealed glass container (use a mason jar). Shake well before each use.9


- Oat and Rice Milks:

These can be delicious and nutritious, and making them at home is the best option because the commercial versions also have preservatives, thickeners and sugar added. Oat milk offers 4g of protein per cup versus only 1g of protein in rice milk. They are both very low allergenic as they are dairy and nut-free.

Here is a detailed recipe for oat milk:

and for rice milk:

You can use the same method above for any type of grain milk. The ratio is 1 cup soaked and cooked grain such as quinoa, oatmeal and rice to one cup of liquid and follow the directions in the link above. You can also mix and match grains and even add some soaked nuts; you can also use coconut water instead of filtered water for a sweeter flavor.


Soy Milk

One major thing to keep in mind is that 94% of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (GM), and the jury is still out on the safety of GM foods. The rise in food allergies and sensitivities has been linked with the introduction of GM soy in many food products. When considering soy milk, it is very important to only consume it if it is organic, so that it is low in toxic residues and isn’t genetically modified. Most soy milk brands have too much added sugar (up to 12g per 8oz) and just as with the other non-dairy milks, caution should be exercised when the milk contains additives (preservatives/thickeners). One of these additives, carrageenan, is thought to be an inflammatory agent, especially to the gut, and consistent exposure to it should be avoided (occasional exposure is considered safe). There is some controversy whether soy milk contains endocrine disruptors and studies are inconclusive. It is safe to have a small to moderate amount of organic soy milk if this is your preferred type of milk. Soy does offer a good amount of protein and iron.


Coconut Milk

coconut milkCoconut milk is very rich and can be a delicious addition to many dishes, especially those with a South-American or Asian flare. It can be used in smoothies, desserts, sauces, and stews, but because of the coconut flavor and its density, it isn’t as easy to substitute for cow’s milk or some of the other milks listed above. When I speak of coconut milk, I mean either fresh milk (a product of blending coconut meat and coconut water) or canned coconut milk (from BPA-free cans). Most other types of coconut milk, especially the ones sold in cartons, have carrageenan added and can also be fortified with synthetic vitamins, and therefore are not recommended.





Image of coconut milk used under Creative Commons fromFruit Lush Photos.

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