Greening Your Kitchen: How To Choose The "Right" Milk ~ The Garden of Eating - a sinfully good blog about food

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Greening Your Kitchen: How To Choose The "Right" Milk

If you don't have time to read this whole post, skip to the end to learn which brands are best and which you should avoid.
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Organic food has become big business, and mega-food processors have moved agressively into the sector to cash in on the boom.

There are now significantly more organic brands and products to choose from when you go to the store than there were even a few years ago. Unfortunately, the corporations behind the majority of those products have powerful lobbyists who are working overtime to weaken the relatively new USDA organic standards in order to maximize their profits. As a result of their efforts, the "organic" label may not mean what you think it means anymore...

Since there are so many players now and the vast majority of them do not have your best interests (or the best interests of farmers, animals, or the planet) at heart, there are now a truly dizzying array of factors to consider and choices to make every time you shop.

These choices are becoming increasingly complex as more and more factors beg our consideration. Since there are far too many organic food products to discuss here, I'm going to focus on one of the more basic foodstuffs - milk.

Organic milk aisle of Andronicos
Here are a few important factors to consider in choosing your gallon of milk:

Location. Where was the milk produced and processed? As you've probably guessed, the more local, the better. Not only will you be helping to support dairy farmers in your community by buying a locally-produced gallon of milk, you'll also be saving gallons of fossil fuel that would be needed to transport the milk over state lines and sparing the environment all those pounds of climate-altering carbon that would have been emitted during transport.

Pasture-raised or grain-fed? Corn-fed cows sound very wholesome, right? Wrong! Cows' stomachs cannot actually tolerate too much corn (it will eventually kill them.) Although it's okay to feed cows some grain (and you'd be hard-pressed to find a dairy that is fully pasture-fed since cows need a grain supplement during the winter/dry season) a diet of primarily corn and other grains is bad for the cows and bad for the milk you'll be drinking (never mind that the grain was probably grown and milled in another state and had to be shipped across state lines.)

a happy Straus Family Creamery cowHumanely-treated or not? In an effort to increase their production and profit margins, big organic chains like Horizon have basically recreated factory farming with a few minor twists designed to satisfy the ever-weaking USDA organic standards. The fact that a product is labeled organic in no way guarantees that the animals were humanely treated, allowed to go outside, graze freely, etc. Organic agribusiness keeps its cows closely penned indoors munching their organic corn and providing the bare minimum of access to pasture the USDA organic regulations require. Smaller dairies tend to provide much better, more humane conditions for their animals.

Waste. All that constant munching mean that cows produce a lot of cow patties and a lot of methane gas along with them. Unfortunately, methane is one of the big contributors to our quickly-warming climate. Waste from cows also pollutes rivers, streams, and entire watersheds. So the way a dairy handles (or does not handle) the waste it produces is also an important consideration.

If you have the time, I suggest that you research the companies on offer in your local market to see where they fall on all these considerations (and while you're at it, you might as well check into their labor practices, too...)

However, if you're a normal human and don't have time to delve into these questions right now, here are a few quick suggestions to inform your dairy shopping.

1. Do not buy Aurora Organic - this huge corporation is the organic equivalent of factory farming operations. It's important to note that Aurora supplies milk for many other private labels including Costco's "Kirkland Signature," Safeway's "O" organics brand, Publix's "High Meadows", Giant's "Natures Promise," and Wild Oats organic milk - so you should avoid buying any of these brands if possible. 
Stonyfield logo small2. Skip Stonyfield Farm, too. Although this company started out great and they have tried to stick to their founding principles as they've grown, they sold a controlling stake in their company to Danone Group (a French mega-processor) a few years back. Since then, they've been making their choices based on maximizing profit while ignoring the well-being of the farmers that supply them as well as the environmental impact of sourcing ingredients from places as far flung as China, Turkey, and New Zealand (can you say humongous carbon footprint, boys and girls?)

Organic Valley logo3. Buy Organic Valley, instead. This worker-run cooperative company offers nation-wide distribution by sourcing and distributing all its dairy products locally, cutting down on fuel and carbon emissions while supporting local farmers. They talk the talk AND walk the walk.

4. Horizon Organic is better than it used to be. I had previously put these as a "definitely do NOT buy" brand but Horizon contacted me in June 2011 to clarify that they've made substantial changes to improve conditions at they and their family of farms - reducing herd sizes, raising their own calves, etc., These changes were made beginning in 2006 in response to consumer complaints about feedlot-like conditions at its farms. While I am skeptical about the company's
commitment to organic principles, if you can't choose one of these other brands, Horizon is certainly a better option than Aurora (in any of its many guises.)

Clover Stornetta logo5. If you live in CA, AZ, or NV, you can also buy Clover Stornetta milk and dairy products with a clean conscience. This is a family-owned and run business with good principles and a growing number of organic suppliers that was also the first U.S. dairy to become Americane Humane Certified.

6. If you live in northern California, the very best milk you Bottle of Straus Family Creamery Milkcan buy is Straus Family Creamery! They make delicious organic milk from cows that are allowed to graze freely that is packaged in fully reusable glass bottles. Better yet, the dairy composts all its solid waste and powers 95% of its operations with the methane captured through that process.

7. If you live in upstate New York (where I grew up), buy
Ronnybrook Farms milk and products. They're a small dairy (not organic, but pesticide, hormone and antibiotic-free) that also packages in glass and uses humane, sustainable practices.

If there is a dairy like Straus and Ronnybrook near your town or city, please buy from them! Their prices may be a bit higher than the bigger companies (especially if you are buying milk in a glass bottle which will include a hefty, but fully refundable, bottle deposit) but it will be worth it. The milk will be better all-around -- better tasting, better for you and your
family, better for the cows that produced it, better for the farmers that processed it, better for your local economy and community, and better for the environment. (phew, I am exhausted now...)
I know there are lots more brands out there than the ones I've mentioned here. If you have info on any of them (I'd be curious to know more about who supplies Trader Joe's and Whole Foods with their generic brand milk, for example) please just post a comment. Thanks!

Update March 2010: A friend just shared this handy website that allows you to find out which dairy your milk is from: (this should work for any of the bigger store brands, including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Safeway, etc., etc.) So if you're curious, check it out!

More Ways To Green Your Kitchen


kk said...

Hi Eve,

With two children I go through a lot of milk every week -- four gallons.

I used to buy local milk (Hudson Valley Fresh), but it doesn't have vitamin D, which is important for bone health in children. This is another thing to consider.


Mya said...

More info on soy/almond/rice milk, please! I suppose I could do some detective work myself, but why go through all the trouble if I can pass it on to you?


Gabrielle said...

I have started to wonder about this as the organic options have grown and expanded from the local health food store and into the Key Foods near my NYC apartment. Thanks for this, Eve, very helpful.

Smurfett said...

I switched to organic milk after I had a heavenly soft serve at a pizza place at Larkspur. Never had organic milk before that. But they used Straus milk and it is indeed delicious!

melissa w said...

I am a big fan of Hudson Valley Fresh - it's a dairy cooperative in Dutchess County in New York started by a retired orthopedic surgeon in order to save family farms -- and the whole milk has quite a bit of Vitamin D. The trick is not to buy low fat milk - taking away fat from milk actually decreases the vitamin D content so when they serve non fat milk in schools, it's like serving water. If you don't believe me, ask Doc Simon who is the one behind HVF. He is a walking encyclopedia of medical knowledge!

julianapeartree said...

I love Strauss milk in theory and even find it worth it to wash out and remember to bring back the glass bottles, except for one thing.. what do you do with that chunky cream at the top? I find it kind of gross floating around in my glass though I'm sure it's just my pasteurized childhood experience...

I'm also into the local raw milk-- have heard it's much better for you, what do you think about that... any research is appreciated.

Eve Fox said...

yeah, I agree with you about the cream (though I know some people love it). I also wish the glass bottles poured more easily. I've considered keeping a non glass bottle and transferring the milk in there to make the experience more pleasant. AS for the cream, it'd be a little bit of a pain but you could skim it off at the start since it's risen to the top, no?

I have not looked into raw milk at all yet so I don't have any info on that, unfortunately. I do know you're not supposed to drink it (or any cheeses made with it) when you're pregnant though since there are bacteria (listeria is the one the medical community seems mot concerned with) that pasteurization would kill.

Anonymous said...

Broguiere's milk if you live in Southern California. It is a small, family owned operation. They bottle their milk in actual bottles and they have the best eggnog ever. Spring Hill Cheese Company in Petaluma, CA is available all over California. They have the best garlic cheese curds. Their animals are treated humanely and they are a small operation.
I also found an interesting (although incomplete) list at the following link.

Anonymous said...

Strauss milk is great but it does not contain Vitamin D (unless they have changed it recently) so that is something to consider.
In NYC there is a brand called Natural by Nature that is not ultra-pasteurized, which leads me to believe it is relatively local. There is also the Fairway store brand organic milk, which is not ultra-pasteurized and says it's grass-fed, but I have no idea if it's fed more grass than the organic minimum.
Can you comment on whether it's better to go with the non-ultra-pasteurized based on the assumption that it's more local?

Eve Fox said...

Hi anonymous, although I'm not an expert on this, I assume that it's better not to buy ultrapasteurized in part because that process would kill or remove some of the helpful nutrients in the milk. Milk is just not meant to last a long time...

Eve Fox said...

Also, for those of you who are concerned about vitamin D, it is very easy to take that as a supplement (we give our son a small drop each day and that covers all his requirements.)

the_missus said...

Hi, I just learned an easy way to find out where your Trader Joe's organic milk comes from. Check the back of the carton for the "Filled at Plant #". Then go
and the number will correspond to the dairy that the milk comes from. Since each region uses different suppliers this is a way to figure it out for your specific region.

Erin said...

Certified raw milk can be bought daily from 4pm-6pm at F&C Brooks & Sons, 285 Tongore Rd., Stone Ridge, NY, Tel. 845-687-4074. It needs to be a very clean facility in order to be certified by NY state, so the milk is tested as often as every couple of days by the farmer. I forget how often but ask the farmer and he'll be glad to tell you. I've never tasted anything like that before..very fresh and wholesome. I've given my 2 young kids (age 2 & 5) raw whole milk since Sept. 2009 and they've been thriving and never got sick from the milk. They love it and won't drink anything else. Also, my 5-yr-old gets stomachaches from any store-bought milk (even organic). I found out that the pasteurization and homogenizing processes kill off much of the beneficial enzymes that help her digest the milk. And there are lots more other health benefits from raw whole milk than drinking pasteurized, homogenized milk. The dairy is not certified organic but the cows are grass-fed and pasture-raised. Grass and hay are grown without pesticides in their own farm. A small amount of grains is also fed to the cows but they are not organic and purchased. It's a very reasonable $2 for 2 quarts but you must bring a wide-mouth 2 qt. glass bottle or you can buy one from them at cost. I feel very lucky to have access to this farm and hope you will give them a try.

Christina said...

I have had the same problem with TJ cream top milks...I dont like the chunks.

have you seen this regarding Strauss...not sure how acurate it all is, but if true it makes me sad.

Eve Fox said...

ugh, no I had not. That would indeed be sad.

Anonymous said...

hi KK...

You should call Hudson Valley Fresh ... they were listed on a site for raw milk because they use a special pasturizing processs ... only 164 degrees F for 20 seconds. I am not possitive ... but that may not destroy the natural vitamin D in the milk if that is true it is better than adding vitamin D because raw milks vitamin D is WATER soluable and utilized by the body better than any supplement form of vitamin D ... milk is the only food source of this type of vitamin D ... the only other way to get vitamin D in water soluable form is to make it yourself from sunshine.

Organic is almost always NOT raw so the vitamin D is not the real form of vitamin D that is found naturally in milk (vitamin D3 sulfate NOT the plain vitamin D3 found in supplements)

Here is some info about raw milk ...
(raw goat milk) ...