Monday, January 27, 2014

The Milk Dilemma

Several years ago, an e-newsletter from Mother Earth News popped into my inbox with an excerpt from the book Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. I immediately took the book out of our local library, but found that I was unable to actually read it. I did take note of some of the history of milk and decided to be a little more discerning in the quality of the milk, i.e. the ethics of the company I was buying from and organic vs non-organic, but otherwise I loved milk too much and it was such an integral part of my diet that I really didn't want to make changes. But when Rick and I switched to organic milk we quickly discovered that the local supermarkets only sold ultra-pasteurized organic milk, which we found was unsuitable for making homemade yogurt or kefir. We also discovered that organic milk didn't necessarily equate to the cows being treated any better than the cows that give you the non-organic milk choices. Nor were the organic milk companies bastions of morality with high business ethics. The final straw was buying some organic milk that tasted so bad -- sort of like rotten cabbages -- that I decided to contact Organic Valley for an answer. I think we've all tasted some milk gone sour in our lives, but this was like no taste I'd ever experienced in milk past its prime. It was nasty. I received an answer explaining the science behind the way pasteurized milk spoils and the way ultra-pasteurized or ultra-high temperature milk spoils. I was also informed that since organic milk doesn't sell at a fast enough rate, by ultra-pasteurizing the milk it has a longer shelf life and therefore a greater chance of selling. In other words, it's all about the money and profit.

With a little more digging, I discovered that the local brand of milk (Tuscan Farms), the one you find in every store in town from the corner deli to the local supermarkets to the drugstores and gas station quick marts, is owned by Dean Foods. Dean Foods is the largest milk distributor in the country. They also happen to own Horizon Organic. They are constantly in the news for price fixing, strangling competition/monopolizing the market, unethical treatment of cows, abusing power, breaching distribution contracts, and a slew of other complaints including the issue of whether Dean Foods violated anti-trust laws. A recent article outlines some of Dean Foods' business history, although the ultimate point of the article was that buying stock in the company was a good investment choice for 2014, despite all the bad press. Dean Foods also happens to own the Silk soy milk company, among others. My advice is to not buy Horizon organic milk and to find out if your local brand of milk is a Dean Foods company and, if so, avoid buying it.

Fast forward a few years and, with my renewed interest in finding the best local sources for meat, milk, and eggs, I took the Milk book out of the library again. This time I'm finding the information fascinating. (Click on the link for an NPR interview with the author.) In the intervening years, Rick has started fermenting foods including sauerkraut, kim chi, cortido, and making kombucha, hard cider, dandelion wine, mead, and numerous other home brews. We've been dehydrating local produce so we can still eat local vegetables during the winter months when fresh produce is not in season. We have kefir going and kefir smoothies are an almost daily addition to our diet. Homemade yogurt and bread baking have always been part of our routine, but Rick took over the daily sandwich bread making after discovering Jim Lahey's No Knead bread recipe. We make yogurt and kefir cheese often and plan to try our hand at making feta. Rick has also been making tempeh and tofu and I've tried my hand at making seitan.

With our focus turned fully on food (and problems in the food industry, GMOs, organic vs local, etc.), I guess it was time to take another look at milk. The problem with milk, however, is that there is no real local choice. There are no dairy farms left on Long Island. Although I have heard of one spot where you can buy raw milk on Long Island, but the drive (i.e. gas and time) unfortunately isn't worth it. Otherwise you're stuck with whatever the local stores have to sell. And, as I mentioned above, the choice is limited to ultra-pasteurized organic milk or Tuscan Farms, which is owned by Deans Foods. Heck, if the organic milk happens to be Horizon, then they're all Dean Foods products. Rick and I took a drive to both Whole Foods and Wild by Nature to see what was available. Neither store is really a viable choice on a normal day because both are a 30 - 40 minute drive west, which means lots of roadwork and lots of traffic and headache. But we thought we could add a drive to one or the other every few weeks if we found a wider choice of foods, including milk. At Wild by Nature we were surprised to find all the organic milk was ultra-pasteurized, but the biggest choice of milk was still Tuscan Farms. Forgetting the fact that I was determined to avoid any Dean Foods products, I could have driven a mile up the street to CVS (pharmacy) to buy Tuscan Farms milk for less than it was being sold at this large health food store. Whole Foods had a slightly bigger selection, but the shelves were mostly empty of those choices. We did shop for other items in both places, but determined that, for the most part, the drive did not justify the purchases. Milk is one of those things, for us, that you want to run out the door and pick up as you do normal day-to day errands.

So what exactly is ultra-pasteurized milk? Well, pasteurized milk was originally heated to 145º for 30 minutes. Finding the process took too long for profit, dairy farmers switched to HTST (high temperature, short time) pasteurization, heating the milk to 161º for 15 seconds (seconds, not minutes). This then gave way to ultra high heat pasteurization (UHT or ultra-pasteurization), heating the milk to 280º for 2 seconds. Heating milk that high effectively kills off anything good in milk. It's pretty much useless, if you ask me. Ultra-pasteurizing milk denatures the whey protein. From the Livestrong site: "The University of Minnesota reports that pasteurized milk loses 3 to 4 percent thiamin, less than 5 percent vitamin E and less than 10 percent of biotin during the heating process.  . . . the denaturation of milk's whey proteins through pasteurization can decrease how well your body absorbs the milk's vitamin B12. Ultra-pasteurization further degrades these nutrients." Organic Valley has an explanation on their site of the different pasteurization processes, but makes UHT milk sound like the preferable choice, one everyone should make, without explaining what it actually does to the milk and the fact that you can't make homemade yogurt, kefir, or cheese from UHT milk. They offer both HTST and UHT milk, and usually get good ratings for their business ethics and treatment of their cows, but, like any large scale company, need to make a profit and so make the UHT choice sound wholesome. Stores invariably buy the UHT milk, too, for the longer shelf life. Therefore, 99% of the organic milk you find on store shelves is going to be ultra-pasteurized/UHT milk. For more reading on the harmful aspects of UHT milk head over to the Weston Price Foundation's Web site. The real bottom line on UHT milk is not that it kills more harmful bacteria and is therefore better for you, but that it extends the shelf life of the product and therefore the profit of the companies. It's a marketing tool for a product that doesn't even need to be, nor was historically, part of our daily diet. Also, unfortunately, most consumers like the longer shelf life without understanding the health implications.

Which brings me to the hardest part of all of this -- discovering the fact that milk as we think of it here in the U.S. has not been part of the human diet in any culture, really, ever. Read the book or do the research and you'll discover that unsoured liquid milk was only occasionally had fresh from the source, and that cow's milk was never really the only choice, or even the first choice, for milk. Historically, milk was soured (fermented). Depending on geography, it was made into yogurt, kefir, kumys, buttermilk, cheese, etc. In other words, it was made into something that would store. Just as vegetables were fermented, milk was, too. It wasn't until more recent history that the idea of "fresh" unsoured liquid milk was introduced into the diet. In fact, it seems that unsoured liquid milk didn't become popular until the 1830s in America, and pretty much snowballed from there until it ended up where it is today, changing small dairy farms to large operations and going from raw to ultra-pasteurized. All in a relatively short span of time in the scheme of things. In the process, we've lost sight of the fact that milk, like so many other foods, was historically a soured fermented product that was much better for us than the form we know it in today.

My conclusions are far from complete, but as of this post the best choice for milk that I can find right here in town is Mountainside Farms, a company that seems to bridge the gap between the large scale conventional dairies of today (i.e. all the Dean Foods products) and the organic ultra-pasteurized milk choices on all the shelves. An added bonus is that their milk is from small farms within a few hours of where we live, making it about as local as I can get. At least everything I've read about the company makes it seem as if they run an ethical business and their farmers treat their cows well. Hopefully this is true. Maybe one day the grocery store will offer a non-UHT organic milk choice (I've asked), or a small scale dairy farm will start up nearby, but it hasn't happened yet. My other goal is to lessen the amount of actual unsoured liquid milk I use. The only way I really use "regular old milk" is in my coffee, though, and drinking coffee black doesn't exactly appeal to me. Since I'm still going to be buying quite a lot of milk in order to continue making my own yogurt and kefir and some cheeses, maybe it isn't so bad to throw a bit into my coffee??? Soy milk is not an option. Don't even get me going on the subject of soy. (We stick to only eating fermented soy also, with the exception of small amounts of homemade tofu in some meals.) Almond milk seems quite expensive, and I'm not sure it can "smooth" the coffee down enough to give it that same creaminess and ahhhhhh taste sensation that milk does. So, the research continues. I'm pretty excited to start making feta cheese and culturing and using buttermilk. Maybe I'll find a source of milk that allows me to skim the cream off for my coffee.

Edited on October 3, 2014: Unfortunately I could never get consistent results when making yogurt and cheese using Mountainside Farms milk. It often failed to set. As of now, we have gone back to using Tuscan Farms milk until another choice becomes available.