The dairy aisle in your local grocery store poses a plethora of decisions—pasteurized or ultrapastuerized? Organic or conventional?
Here, TakePart defines the different types of dairy available and provides resources for determining the healthiest forms of dairy for you, the cows that produce it, and the environment.
How can something that's always white have so many choices? (Photo: bluewaikiki.com/Creative Commons)
Raw—Raw milk has not been heated in either a pasteurization or ultrapasteurization process. If the milk has been contaminated with harmful bacteria at any point in the production process, that bacteria will likely still be alive when you pour it into your glass. (Proper farming and handling practices limit this risk. Here's Nina Planck's guide to what to look for in a raw milk provider.) On the upside, the lack of heating means that all beneficial bacteria, enzymes, vitamins and other nutrients are fully intact, making raw milk a nutritional powerhouse. Despite potential benefits, selling raw milk is outlawed in many states. Here's a state-by-state review of milk laws.
Organic—Cows must be fed organic feed without antibiotics or hormones. And in a recently added provision, cows must also graze on pastures for at least 120 days per year. (Horizon and Costco are two brands of organic milk that have been accused of using large-scale farming practices and keeping their cows confined to small pens despite using the "organic" label.)
Homogenized—The homogenization essentially shakes milk to evenly distribute fat particles consistently throughout the milk. (Left on their own, fat globules naturally rise to the top.) The process increases the fat molecules' exposure to air, which encourages oxidation—a nice way of saying "damage." Consumers then ingest the oxidized fat, which is harder for the body to process. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, homogenization has been linked to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Pasteurized—Milk is heated to give it a longer shelf life and kill potentially harmful bacteria. The downside: naturally occurring beneficial bacteria and enzymes, as well as the vitamin content, are also reduced.
Ultrapasteurized—As the name suggests, ultrapasteurized milk has undergone an amped-up version of pasteurization. Milk is heated to higher temps for longer periods of time. On the good side, this gives milk a much longer shelf life (typically four weeks) and allows milk to be shipped and stored at room temperature until opened, reducing the carbon emissions necessary to deliver the milk to your glass. On the bad side, even more bacteria, enzymes, vitamins and nutrients are destroyed in the process, severely limiting the nutritional value of the milk. Even most organic brands of milk, such as Organic Valley and Horizon, are ultrapasteurized.