Drinking Full Fat, Whole Milk

(Photo by striatic)

I grew up drinking 2% milk. I was raised on the philosophy that you should drink the lowest fat milk you could tolerate since by default fewer calories were better. As an adult, when I switched to organic milk, I also switched to non-fat milk, since the organic was richer, and I liked the non-fat milk just fine. Just a few months ago, Joshua asked me why I was drinking non-fat milk. I mean, I’ve finally gotten over calorie counting and other dieting nonsense, so it didn’t make sense to him why I would drink anything other than whole milk. I really stammered for an answer that would make sense and not rely on erroneous dieting thinking. I liked the taste of lower fat milk just fine, unlike, say, non-fat cookies. So, all other things being equal, I finally settled on a stammered answer something along the lines of, “Why not?” But embedded in there is the real question I should have been asking: Between different fat levels of milk, are all other things really equal?

Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food and The Weston A. Price Foundation (which might be Pollan’s source) agree on the problems with lower fat milk:

  • Milk is first separated into its various components – fat, protein, etc – and then put back together at set levels to create the different fat content milks. This means that even whole milk is a processed food, even before you get to homogenization and pasteurization.
  • In order to give them the expected consistency, reduced fat and no-fat milks have dried skim milk added, but you won’t see this ingredient on the label.
  • The process of making dried (powdered) skim milk causes the cholesterol to oxidize. Oxidized cholesterol causes plaque buildup in your arteries. This means that if you’re drinking low fat or non-fat milk for your heart health, you’re being completely counter-productive.

However, other sources offer up some counter-claims, such as:

(Photo by aubergene)
  • The process to make dried milk does oxidize the cholesterol, and oxidized cholesterol is particularly bad for you, but nonfat milk contains almost no cholesterol in the first place, meaning it doesn’t become much of a threat.
  • Writers who have called representatives of milk brands, including national, local, organic, and non-organic brands, who all say that there’s no dried milk added to their fresh milk. Some say that doing so used to be an industry standard but hasn’t been for decades.

So a couple of the big reasons offered for not drinking lower fat milk are in question. However, there are a whole host of things that do NOT seem to be in question:

  • The protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D in milk require fat in order for us to absorb them.
  • Milk fat is saturated fat which raises good cholesterol and is also linked to immune health and cell metabolism.
  • And then there’s the simple fact that fat isn’t bad for you. There’s no real reason to avoid it.

At the end of the day, though, here’s the bottom line: whole milk is closer to a whole food. True, with all the -izations involved these days, whole milk isn’t exactly a whole food. But it’s closer, and sometimes closer is as good as we can do right now. Once I got to thinking about it, my “Why not?” question is actually the opposite of what I’d like to ask. The real question should be starting at the stuff that comes out of the cow and asking, “Why?” at each stage of alteration. For example, the primary purpose of homogenization seems to be to prevent the milk from separating. Do I really need a level of processing on my food to save me from having to shake it up? I would say no.

Anyway, the initial decision to switch to whole milk actually came pretty rapidly. After I tried to stammer out my answer, I mostly laughed it off, realized that I had no idea why I was still drinking lower fat milk, and the next time I went shopping I bought whole milk. Further research into the matter has shown me that there’s probably no particular problem with lower fat milk (compared to all of our other processed food anyway), but ultimately, lower fat milk doesn’t fit into what I want from my food, from my industries, and from my life.

A natural next step would be to switch to raw milk. I have been looking into this a little bit. I’ve found a couple of local suppliers, but I have yet to take the step to actually buy milk from them. I will certainly let you know when I do!

Update: Now you can read the follow up post: Milk Decisions – Raw Milk or Not?