Milk and dairy products provide many important nutrients in a healthy diet, including calcium, Vitamin D, potassium, and protein.   The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals ages 9 and older consume three servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt each day; those 4 – 8 years should consume 2-1/2 cups each day.

There are a variety of milk products based on processing and types/degrees of additives (e.g., vitamins), age (e.g., a wide variety of cheese), coagulation (e.g., cottage cheese), farming method (e.g., organic, grass-fed), fat content (e.g., cream, half & half, 1% milk), fermentation, (e.g., buttermilk), added flavoring (e.g. chocolate), homogenization (e.g. cream top), reduction or elimination of lactose, type of animal (e.g. cow, goat, sheep), packaging (e.g. bottle, carton), pasteurization (e.g., pasteurized or raw milk), and water content (e.g. dry milk).  

Pasteurization vs “Raw” (Unprocessed) Milk 

Pasteurization is a process named after scientist Louis Pasteur which uses heat to destroy pathogens in foods. Pasteurized milk has been used in the U.S. since the early 1900s and its early use is believed to have reduced death and disease from contaminated milk and enabled milk to be shipped and stored for longer periods of time.  The terms "pasteurization" and "pasteurized" mean the process of heating the milk or milk products to a high temperature to kill dangerous bacteria, then rapidly cooling the product.  There are two main types of pasteurization in use today:

  • High-Temperature Short Time (HTST) which raises the milk's temperature to 161°F for 15-20 seconds
  • Ultra-High Temperature (UHT) which heats the milk to 275°F for 1-2 seconds.

But pasteurization does more than kill dangerous germs; it also kills off harmless and useful germs alike, and by subjecting the milk to high temperatures, destroys some nutrients.  Some people believe that pasteurized milk is less healthy and more difficult to digest when potentially beneficial bacteria are destroyed during pasteurization. Proponents of unpasteurized “raw” milk have been actively promoting the positive benefits of full-fat, pasture-fed, unprocessed milk and milk products because raw milk contains multiple, natural, redundant systems of bioactive components that can reduce or eliminate populations of pathogenic bacteria.  This naturally occurring system destroys pathogens in the milk, stimulates our immune system, builds a healthy gut wall, prevents the absorption of pathogens and toxins in the gut, and ensures the assimilation of all the nutrients.

It is against federal law, enforced by the FDA, to sell raw milk packaged for consumer use across state lines (interstate commerce).  But each state regulates the production and sale of raw milk within the state (intrastate), and some states allow it to be produced and sold to consumers.  By the end of 2013, 40 states had rules allowing the sale of raw milk, and 10 do not.  Those ten are Hawaii, Nevada, Montana, Iowa, Louisiana, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

BGH, rBGH, BST and rBST  

The conventional dairy industry uses a variety of growth and breeding hormones to increase weight gain and milk production and to manage cows’ reproduction cycles for convenience.   The human form of growth hormone, also called somatotropin, is made by the pituitary gland. It promotes growth and cell replication. Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), also known as bovine somatotropin (BST) is the natural form of this hormone in cattle.   The widely used Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), is a synthetic (man-made) hormone manufactured originally by Monsanto and sold under the trade name Posilac.  It has been used in the United States since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, but its use is not permitted in the European Union, Canada, and some other countries.

  • Humans are exposed to these synthetic hormones when they eat the meat or drink the milk of treated cows.
  • The hormones are also excreted in the urine of livestock and can contaminate water supplies for humans and wildlife.
  • The use of BGH (and rBGH) increases infections in treated animals, thus they require more antibiotics to treat an infection or other diseases.  The ongoing presence of antibiotic residues may decrease the effectiveness of antibiotics against bacteria in both humans and cows.
  • Research has shown a negative effect on minnows and other fish in streams that are next to beef feedlots treated with growth hormones.
  • Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that milk from cows given BGH is safe for humans, some researchers are concerned with BGH’s effect on immune protection against diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
  • There is a body of scientific evidence that links estrogen exposure to breast cancer.    It is thought that the longer the exposure to high levels of the rBGH estrogen-like hormone, the greater the breast cancer risk.

FDA rules do not require labels for milk and milk products from cows given rBGH, but dairy product labels may state that they do NOT contain BGH or rBGH. 

Organic Dairy 

Most customers shopping in a natural food store want dairy products – milk, cheese, butter, etc. – to be free from pesticides, synthetic hormones, and antibiotics.  When people use the term “conventional” or “organic” to refer to products, they are actually referring to the methods by which the dairy items are produced.  Many farmers raise healthy, comfortable cows that produce safe, nutritious milk, but that milk cannot be referred to as organic. 

Why This Matters:

Many consumers want to purchase dairy products from healthy, fairly treated animals for both health and ethical reasons.  Certified organic milk must be from cows that never receive antibiotics or growth hormones, are always given room to move about, and are always given organically grown feed.

In order for milk products to receive the USDA organic certification, the dairy farm must fully incorporate and adopt a set of production methods that include a variety of specified “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices.”  These include how often cows graze and have access to pasture, how their additional feed must be grown, and how their health is managed.  Here are five ways that organic dairy products differ from conventional dairy items.

  1. Cows must be fed organic feed grown on land that is free from pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers for at least three years.   The feed may not come from genetically engineered crops.
  2. Cows are not given antibiotics. Herd health is promoted through clean bedding, sanitary facilities, natural medicines, room to move, and clean air and water.  If antibiotics are required to save a cow’s life, the cow is withdrawn from the organic herd.
  3. Cows are not given growth hormones (BGH, rBGH, BST, and rBST) to chemically alter their growth or milk production patterns.
  4. Cows are treated humanely, including open pasturing, free stalls, and clean, comfortable bedding.
  5. Organic milk may not be blended or otherwise come in contact with non-organic milk. All organic dairy processing must be entirely separate from non-organic products and must be done on clean equipment.

Homogenized Milk    

Milk fat called cream will rise to the top in fresh milk that is left standing for 12 to 24 hours.  This cream is typically collected and processed into other products.  To prevent separation, milk is homogenized, a process that breaks up the fat particles in the milk and disperses it uniformly throughout.  Milk homogenization is used by the dairy industry to allow milk from many different herds and types of cows to be combined for a consistent flavor and fat content, giving it a creamy “mouth-feel.”  The industry produces milk with different amounts of fat:  Whole Milk has 3.5% milk fat, 2% is considered reduced-fat, 1% is considered low fat.  By law, fat-free (nonfat or skim milk) may only have .2% milk fat.  All of these milks contain the same essential nutrients found in whole milk.

Lactose-Free Milk

Some people have lactose intolerance, a condition that does not allow the person to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk (and in varying amounts in other products made from milk) because they are lacking the enzyme needed to digest the lactose.  Customers suffering from lactose intolerance experience gastrointestinal difficulties such as gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.  Manufacturers have provided a solution by adding lactase, a lactose-digesting enzyme, to the milk so that it can be consumed and digested.   The added lactase splits the lactose molecules into its two components, two sugars called glucose and galactose, making it digestible.  


Words to Remember


Is a man-made hormone used in the meat and dairy industries to increase weight gain, milk production, and manage cows’ reproductive cycle more conveniently. The use of BGH has caused harm to people, the environment, and its wildlife, and is widely avoided in the natural food industry.



A process that breaks up the fat particles in the milk and disperses it uniformly throughout.



Is a sugar found in milk and dairy products that may contribute to allergic or intolerance reactions.



Pasteurized means that the milk has been heated to a high temperature for enough time to kill bacteria, and then is rapidly cooled.