Once a place of creamy serenity, the dairy aisle is now fraught. One can recall a more innocent time when the only question was 2% or skim, but those days are long gone. “Got Milk?” used to require no more than a one-word answer, but now it only leads to a seemingly endless array of questions. Dairy or soy? Cow or goat? What about grass-fed? What’s up with kefir? What does a a girl have to do to get raw milk in this town? The questions go on and on, much like supermarket aisles.
So, we hit Whole Foods Market to make sense of it all. (And it wasn’t even a sample day!) We stocked up on a variety of the white stuff and took it home for a series of scientific taste tests (cookies, coffee, and some gagging were involved). Then we chatted up a health counselor to get the skinny.
This week, we look at the cow varieties, but we’ll get crazier in the next few weeks, checking out everything from goat to hemp milk. Prices refer to Whole Foods in New York City.
What it really is: Milk. From a cow. Not labeled “organic”, “local”, “grass-fed”, or any other buzzword.
What it tastes like: You’ve been here before. Childhood. Rainbows. Puppies. Pre-school snack time with a graham cracker and a carpet square. We sampled the Whole Foods 365 brand, and it had a classic, pleasing taste. Less sweet than its organic counterpart but no less yummy.
Price: $.99 for 32 ounces
Reasons to drink up: Inexpensive, easy to find, classic taste
Reasons to spit it up: It’s not organic and you don’t know how the cows were raised. And, this is America, land of factory farms and corn subsidies. “If you’re going to go organic with anything, you should definitely have your dairy be organic” says Kavita Jhaveri-Patel, a certified holistic health counselor. “Antibiotics and hormones are fed to the cows so they can produce more milk. This has a lot of side effects, including high estrogen levels in both men and women.” If you don’t go organic, but want to avoid an estrogen overdose, Jhaveri-Patel recommends skim milk, noting that the added hormones are typically stored in the milk’s fat. (With organic and raw milk, she recommends the full-fat versions to get the most of the milks’ original nutrients.)
What it really is: Milk taken straight from the cow, rapidly cooled and bottled, not pasteurized or homogenized.
What it really tastes like: If only we could tell you. It’s illegal to sell raw milk in about half of the 50 states.
Price: Not available
Reasons to drink up: “It’s basically straight from the natural source, the way nature intended,” says Jhaveri-Patel. Because raw milk isn’t pasteurized (i.e. heated to high temperatures to destroy bacteria and enzymes), all the good stuff remains.
Reasons to spit it up: Because raw milk isn’t pasteurized, any bad stuff (say, E. coli) remains. Raw milk proponents argue that if the milk is collected hygienically from a grass-fed cow, the risk is minimal, but because of that risk, raw milk sales are illegal in many states. Jhaveri-Patel says the safety concerns are “something to think about, and if you’re really concerned about it, don’t do it.” If you’re desperate to try it, and it’s illegal in your state, “there are places to find out about getting it,” she says, including some websites.
Organic (And Often Local)
What it really is: Certified organic milk. When we asked for raw at Whole Foods, they told us milk from Milk Thistle Farms, an organic dairy in Ghent, New York was the next best thing, as their milk is only “lightly pasteurized”, and the full-fat version is non-homogenized.
What it really tastes like: Sheer and udder deliciousness. Our favorite milk of the bunch, it was slightly sweet and totally natural tasting. It was delightful in coffee, where that sweetness obliterated any need for added sugar or sweetener. Even the skim version had a full taste and a vague creaminess.
Price: $6.99 for 64 ounces, plus $1 bottle deposit
Reasons to drink up: It tastes great, and it’s good for you and the cows. While it depends on the specific farm, cows on local, organic dairies tend to be treated more humanely. Milk Thistle Farms says its cows are allowed to spend their days out on the field and that each cow is known by name. By law, for milk to be labeled organic, the cows can’t be fed hormones or antibiotics, so you’re not drinking in strange additives. And, because the milk is only lightly pasteurized (as in the case of Milk Thistle), more of its original vitamins and minerals remain. Also, Milk Thistle, like many organic dairies, packages its milk in eco-friendly glass bottles that can be reused by the farm. Some also believe milk in glass bottles tastes better.
Reasons to spit it up: It’s expensive, and organic milk doesn’t mean that the cows are only munching on grass, though, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, the USDA recently passed new requirements for organic dairy farmers that will take effect in early 2011. For their milk to qualify as organic, cows must be allowed to graze on open pasture for at least 120 days of the year and get 30 percent of their nutrition from fresh grass.
What it really is: Milk from cows that only feed on grass, not grain or corn. Super-strict USDA regulations require a grass-only diet – no grain or grain byproducts, and cows must have free reign over pastures. (These laws are much stricter than for the organic label; see above.)
What it really tastes like: Perhaps because we associate the word “grass” plus anything in a bottle with that delicious Polish vodka with the grass leaf in it, we had high hopes…hopes that were quickly crushed. Grass fed milk has a distinct taste; the brand we sampled (and the only brand we could find at Whole Foods), Sky Top Farms, had an unpleasant metallic taste. “It tastes like shrimp,” exclaimed one of our testers – not exactly what you want in your granola. That said, the taste of grass-fed milk varies greatly across brands and areas where cows are grazing; because cows are living off the land (and not corn subsidies), grass-fed milk almost has <em>terroir</em> like wine.
Price: $2.99 for 32 ounces
Reasons to drink up: “I highly highly recommend grass-fed,” says Jhaveri-Patel. “The cows eat what they’re meant to, and that’s probably the best source of vitamins and minerals.”
Reasons to spit it up: Expensive and not a classic milk taste but rather a fishy one. While Jhaveri-Patel recommends trying different labels, Whole Foods offered only one kind, Sky Top Farms, that came in a plastic jug, not a reusable glass jar like our organic pick.
What it really is: Actual cow’s milk with an enzyme added that converts lactose to glucose, making it easier to digest, especially for the lactose-intolerant.
What it really tastes like: Better than we imagined, given that the brand we tried – Lactaid – had busy, unappealing packaging. It also had a pleasant sweetness to it, for which lactose-free milk is often noted. Still, like fake breasts, its artificial nature was a bit disturbing and the texture was slightly off.
Price: $2.69 for 32 ounces
Reasons to drink up: “It’s a good alternative,” says Jhaveri-Patel, “but it’s still processed.” For the lactose-intolerant who still want a traditional cow’s milk, this may be the way to go. But if you’re actually allergic to milk, this won’t work for you.
Reasons to spit it up: Its artificial taste, texture, and nature
What it really is: A drink made from fermented cow’s milk; think of kefir as yogurt’s cooler cousin. It’s fermented with more and different types of bacteria than yogurt, so it has more beneficial probiotics.
What it really tastes like: The plain Lifeway Kefir we tried oozed ominously out of a plastic bottle, but once we brought it to our lips, all was well. It tasted pleasantly sour and a bit tangy, like plain yogurt, and went down smoothly with a thickness akin to, you guessed it, drinkable yogurt. Just don’t dip a cookie in it, and whatever you do, don’t add it to your coffee. Like yogurt, kefir is available in an array of fruit flavors like strawberry or pomegranate açaí.
Price: $3.79 for 32 ounces
Reasons to drink up: “Kefir is a great source of probiotics, and good for people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome or any digestive issues,” says Jhaveri-Patel. It’s certainly a more natural source of probiotics than that Activia stuff Jamie Lee Curtis hawks. According to this Los Angeles Times article, there are claims that drinking kefir can do everything from lower your cholesterol to fight cancer cells, but those alleged effects are still being studied.
Reasons to spit it up: If drinkable yogurt isn’t your thing, kefir probably won’t be either. It’s pricey compared to other milks, but remember, it’s more comparable to yogurt. Perhaps most annoyingly, like quinoa (KEEN-wah), it’s healthy food with a confusing pronunciation; Merriam-Webster lists no less than three ways to say it. Study them carefully to avoid embarrassment at the next food co-op member meeting.
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Photos: Hailey Eber
Reprinted with Permission