Milk isn’t right for everybody. If you are trying to lose weight, have an allergy or sensitivity, or only have access to “conventional” milk, you’re better off without it. However, for those that are happy with their weight or wanting to gain, pregnant or lactating women, and some children, raw and organic milk can have a healthy and beneficial place in your diet.
However, there are some major differences between regular (conventional) milk, organic milk and raw milk that have a big impact on the overall health benefits.
Milk is the liquid that comes from the udders of cows, and (like human babies), this liquid sustains and nourishes calfs in their infancy. Other dairy products that come from milk include yogurt, butter, cheese, cream and more.
The nutrient value of milk is complex and vast, but a high quality milk (more on what this entails in a moment) can provide the human body with truly excellent nutrition.
Let’s take a closer look at the actual nutrient breakdown of 1 cup of whole milk (1):
- Calories: 149
- Protein: 7.7 grams
- Carbs: 11.7 grams
- Fat: 8 grams
Protein in Milk
Milk is a great source of protein, and the type of protein found in milk can be broken into 2 different categories: whey and casein. The primary difference between these proteins has to do with their solubility in water.
Casein makes up about 80% of the protein content of milk, and is insoluble in water. Allergies are common to both types of proteins. One study concluded that casein works to increase the absorption of calcium and phosphorous, two important minerals for multiple bodily functions (2). Casein also supports healthy blood pressure.
Whey protein accounts for much less, about 20% of the protein found in milk. As opposed to casein, whey is a soluble protein that is rich in branched chain amino acids, and offer different health properties. Whey is a great protein source for muscle maintenance and growth, which is why many athletes use whey protein powder in their sports and recovery drinks. Whey is also though to help lower blood pressure (3), and one study suggested that it might help to support mood and stress management.
Fat Content of Milk
Whole, raw milk contains just under 4% fat. When purchased in a US supermarket, whole milk contains 3.25% fat, and then there are lower fat options (2% and nonfat). About 70% of the fat content of milk is saturated fat, and remember that there have been absolutely no associations between saturated fat and heart disease, and saturated fats can actually help to achieve healthy cholesterol levels.
Carbs in Milk
The carbohydrates found in milk come mainly from lactose, which is a simple sugar. A common myth is that a milk allergy is the same thing as lactose intolerance, which is not the case. An allergy is usually a reaction to the whey or casein proteins, while a lactose intolerance is an inability to process this simple sugar due to the body lacking the enzyme, lactase (more on this when we talk about raw milk).
Key Nutrients in Milk
Now that we’ve covered the macronutrients in milk, let’s take a look at some of the key micronutrients:
Vitamin B12 is only found in animals and animal products (which is why it’s generally a good idea for vegetarians and vegans, especially, to supplement), and is plays a critical role in energy production.
Phosphorus works hand in hand with calcium to support strong teeth and bones, and milk is an excellent source of this key mineral.
Calcium is important for bones, teeth and muscles, along with proper nerve and heart function. Milk is an excellent source of easily absorbable calcium.
Also known as vitamin B2, riboflavin plays various essential functions in the human body, including energy production.
Pasteurization and Homogenization
Here’s where we really start to understand the difference between organic, regular and raw milk. Pasteurization is the process that all organic and conventional milk goes through (unless it is raw) that heats milk to high enough temperatures to kill an potential bacteria that might exist. It kills both good and bad bacteria, mold and yeast. Pasteurization also kills vitamins that are sensitive to heat.
Homogenization is the process of heating milk and pumping it through small pipes at high pressures in order to break up larger fat globules. In raw milk, these naturally occurring globules will float to the top, and homogenization breaks these into smaller sized pieces. The goal of this is to produce a whiter, thinner milk and a longer shelf life.
Organic vs. Regular Milk
While there is a world of difference between raw and conventional milk, the differences between organic and regular milk are fewer. One study showed that organic milk had slightly higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids and protein. It also means that the dairy farmer is required to use organic feed, allow his animals access to the outdoors and uphold a higher standard of animal treatment. These are definitely all good things, but the actual nutritional quality of the milk itself isn’t hugely different, and organic milk still undergoes pasteurization and homogenization.
Organic farmers also cannot use growth hormones or antibiotics, so there is no risk of your organic milk containing these things. Most studies show that conventional milk is subjected to strict testing for antibiotics (so even regular milk is unlikely to contain antibiotics), but it could contain growth hormones, as the FDA has deemed these safe for human consumption, therefore testing of milk is limited. Lastly, organic milk will not come from animals fed GMO feed.
Raw vs. Regular Milk
This is where the real differences come into play. Raw milk is not pasteurized or homogenized, which means its nutrient content is higher. Also, studies show that drinking raw milk can greatly reduce allergies in children such as asthma and eczema (4).
Interestingly, the rate of food borne illnesses in the US are widely related to processed and factory farmed foods, and not to raw foods (or milk). The real risk with raw milk containing harmful bacteria is mainly due to industrial farming practices, not any inherent risk in raw milk itself being unsafe. Any raw milk that you buy from a certified vendor will be just as safe (if not safer) than regular milk.
Lactose Intolerance and Other Reasons Not to Drink Milk
If you are lactose intolerant, you can first try raw milk to see if that makes a difference (and for many, it will). If not; however, you will need to avoid milk and dairy products. Fermented dairy, such as yogurt, is easier to digest.
Multiple studies have linked milk consumption and other dairy products to acne (5), so those who suffer from acne might benefit from cutting out dairy. Excessive milk consumption has been loosely linked to cancer, so drinking milk in moderation is key.
Milk and Weight Management
Milk is what can be thought of as a “building food,” meaning it is meant for growth. For those wanting to gain weight, this can make whole milk (especially raw), an excellent addition to the diet. However, for those wanting to lose weight, dairy in general probably won’t do you any favors.
If this seems like a lot of information, remember the following:
- Organic milk is superior to conventional/regular milk, and raw is superior to both (if purchased from a trusted and certified vendor).
- If you are lactose intolerant, drinking raw milk might help. If not, you’ll need to avoid dairy.
- Milk is linked to acne, and excessive consumption can lead to weight gain and possibly even to cancer.
- For those who can handle milk, it is an excellent and nutrient dense protein source.
Cheers to your health!