Used to be that milk was milk, right? But nowadays there are so many different kinds, with confusing names and labels, what's a mom to do? We've compiled a handy-dandy guide so that you can know what you're buying and what's best for your family.
Whole milk is at least 3.5% milk fat. Milk Fat is thought to contain important fatty acids that help in brain development, and so the government recommends that children drink only whole milk until age two.
2% and 1%
The percentages refer to the amount of milk fat left in the milk. These are both lower-fat choices than whole milk, yet still contain some of the beneficial fatty acids from whole milk. Many nutritionists believe these milks are best for most people, as they still contain enough fat to aid in the absorption of calcium from the milk.
Skim or Non-Fat
Skim milk has as much of the milk fat as possible removed, and therefore contains as much as 45 percent fewer calories than whole milk. Skim milk is best for people on a low-calorie or low-fat diet.
Acidophilus milk has live bacteria cultures added after it has been pasteurized. These bacteria, like those found in yogurt, can make the milk easier for some people to digest.
Most low-fat milks are enriched with vitamins A and D, because those vitamins are lost when the fat is removed from whole milk. Vitamin D, in particular, is thought to be key to the absorption of calcium from milk.
UHT, Pasteurized, or Low-Pasteurized
Ever wonder why your organic milk lasts so much longer in the fridge than conventional milk? It's likely because it has been ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurized. This means that the milk has been heated to a high enough temperature to kill everything in it and render it shelf-stable. Some people believe this can contribute to health risks.
Regular pasteurization heats milk to kill harmful bacteria and was introduced in the 1900s when farmers were handling their cows and milk in very unsanitary conditions. Low-pasteurized (sometimes called "vat" pasteurized) milk is heated to the lowest possible temperature to kill the harmful bacteria, and no more. Some people believe this helps the milk retain more of its nutritious properties. Many small organic producers opt for the low-pasteurized route.
Raw milk is completely unpasteurized and untouched; it goes straight from cow to carton, so to speak. Some people believe that raw milk has many health benefits. However, raw milk is illegal in many states because the USDA believes it is unsafe since it does not undergo pasteurization.
Homogenized milk is processed at high pressure to the point that the fat molecules are broken into tiny bits and remain suspended in the milk, rather than rising to the top as cream. There has been some controversy about whether the homogenization process can cause health problems, but current thinking seems to be that it is a safe process.
rBST and rBGH Free
The chemicals rBST and rBGH are growth hormones, given to cows to increase milk production. Some experts believe that these added hormones could cause a higher risk for hormone-related cancers, or be in some way related to the fact that children are experiencing puberty at a younger and younger age.
Organic milk must come from cows not treated with antibiotics, rBST or rBGH and cows who have "access to pasture" and whose feed was grown without the use of pesticides. But beyond that, there's very little difference between conventional milk and organic milk.
A recent addition to the dairy shelves is omega-3 enriched milks. Our bodies, particularly our brains, need omega-3 fatty acids, which we must obtain through food, and because of the recent popularity of omega-3s in the popular consciousness, many milk producers have started adding the fatty acid to their milk. You will pay a premium for it, though.
Even newer is Organic Valley's recent milk product: grass-fed milk. Grass-fed cows naturally produce milk that is higher in omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid, a good fat. Until feeding cows grass becomes more mainstream again, however, you can bet your sweet bippy that you will be paying a high price for this milk.
So What Should You Choose?
It's important to assess all the benefits and risks of the different types of milk for yourself. Ideally, the best milk will be organic, grass-fed milk from a local farmer, but when that's not an option, you now have the facts to make an informed choice at the supermarket.