It really depends on who you ask. The whole foods people will tell you yes, as long as it is whole milk and minimally processed. Raw movement followers will only take it raw. Lactose intolerant folks have very real issues and need alternatives. Vegans are adamantly opposed to eating any animal product. Vegetarians seem split on the issue; it depends on how they practice.
Me, I am a fan. I like it with cookies, in fact I like it in cookies - when it comes to cooking and baking, milk inevitably smooths out a recipe like nothing else. Visit my fridge and you will find dairy all around, including cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream, heavy cream, half and half, chocolate, and more. In addition to tasting great, milk is a super food. It is a great source of calcium, vitamins A and D, and other vitamins and minerals. Milk and milk products have been found to reduce tooth decay. It also is frequently cited as a combatant to a host of ills including osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, and colon cancer.
That being said, there is much controversy around milk, including the following issues:
Industrial farmingIndustrial farming is a problem; that is one idea all the different foodie groups can get behind. There is a lot of play in the media on how this affects meat purchases, but far less conversation on milk and eggs. Suffice it to say that the same problems (environmental, humane, gastronomic, and health) pervade and are passed through the animals into the dairy products. Organic industrial milk is not much better than its mainstream counterparts; while the animals are not exposed to antibiotics, they are living in horrendous conditions and eating soy and corn 'vegetarian diets', both of which do not make for good food. Cows are ruminants; they need to be able to roam on pasture and eat the grasses that have naturally produced milk for many years. Organic milk does not guarantee these conditions.
Pasteurization and homogenizationPasteurization is a process to eliminate bacteria in milk, usually caused from unclean conditions. The milk is boiled at various heats, rendering the milk more or less sterile. Pasteurization also contributes to longer shelf life for milk products. There is some controversy here, as some believe that any pasteurization decreases milks nutritional qualities. Others hold that the High Temperature Short Time process is the only acceptable form of pasteurization. Homogenization is a process that equally distributes cream with the rest of the milk; prior to it, folks would shake their milk bottle vigorously before pouring, to ensure cream did not collect at the top.Milk pasteurization is required per most State regulations. It is a federal offense to transport raw (unpasteurized) milk across state lines. Homogenization is not legally required.That being said, the raw milk movement has taken off in America. If you are willing to make the trip to purchase it at various farms across the country, you are in for a tasty treat.Fat contentWhole, 1%, 2%, Skim...there are a lot of choices in the dairy case. The whole food movement believes that milk should be eaten in it's purest form, which means whole milk only. Lower fat alternatives are advocated by the American Heart Association and other like health organizations.Vitamin DVitamin D is added to most industrially farmed milk; it is not added to grass fed or raw milk products.Is it cruel to milk cows?There is a lot of debate about this. Industrialized farming does seem cruel when it comes to milking cows. In order to give milk, they must be impregnated regularly. They give birth to calves but are not allowed to feed their young (who are fed a milk supplement by machine, and if they are male eventually sent to the veal crates). They are milked several times a day using machinery that is said to cause lesions and be uncomfortable for the animals. These practices are more likely to occur on large industrialized farms, which have the equipment and money necessary to implement large economy of scale production. Smaller farms may include some of these practices, but they do not have the capital nor the mandate to do so as fully as industrialized farms.
So what to do? If we had a backyard and I had my druthers, we would have a pasture for pet cows, but for now I have to make some practical choices for me and my family. We are dairy eaters and I will continue to use milk products for their heath and gastronomic benefits, albeit in moderation. I don't think it is necessary to drink milk with our meals, nor I do I include dairy products in every meal. As far as snacks go, I think cheese is a great choice for nibbling, but try to avoid anything over processed such as flavored milks, gogurt, or milk chocolate that uses corn syrup as an added ingredient.
That being said, I now shop much more carefully for dairy products. I buy grass fed, HSTS pasteurized, non-homogenized, whole milk. Try saying that 5 times fast. It is not easy to come by; I usually find it in the organic markets or Whole Foods. I like the Natural by Nature and Sky Top Farms brands. They are small farms within 150 miles of my home. The milk tastes like the milk I remember drinking as a child; it is creamy, with a light floral scent (I am guessing from the grass), and cooks beautifully. I kind of like shaking it before serving; it is a nice reminder of what I have chosen for my family and and excellent way to get my yaya's out.
When I cannot find this milk, my next stop is the Organic Valley brand. I like them because they actually make an effort to purchase grass fed milk from their cooperating farmers (mostly small farms). But it is not a requirement (120 days of annual pasture feeding is their standard), and you can taste the difference; it tastes like any other organic milk. This brand is homogenized and pasteurized, and is very readily available in most supermarkets and grocery stores across the US.
As a side note, I am not a fan of soy milk; it highly processed, estrogenic, and environmentally problematic. More on that in a future post, but here is a link to a recent piece by Umami Girl on the matter - I agreed with her completely. I do like coconut milk and use it regularly in my cooking and baking. Goat milk is another great alternative, but it does take some getting used to.
Below is one of my favorite milk treats, homemade hot chocolate with whipped cream. Once you choose your milk, enjoy every sip.
Note (4/15/10): Here is a great link to the Cornucopia Institute's dairy report. It describes the issues in much greater detail and also has a brand rating, which happily is consistent with my own analysis.
Hot Chocolate With Whipped Cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
2 cups milk (any kind will work)
1/2 cup cream
- Sift sugar and cocoa together and add to a small sauce pot. Add milk and turn heat on medium high. Sir constantly until all ingredients are blended (about 5 minutes).
- Using an electric mixer, whip cream on high for 2 - 3 minutes, until stiff peaks form.
- Pour hot cocoa into cups, top with whipped cream, and serve.