“What Kind of Milk Should I Drink?”

Choosing what type of milk to drink

I’ve gotten this question a lot lately. People can get pretty passionate about their milk, so for the sake of this particular discussion, let’s assume you’re not asking whether or not you should drink milk at all, just that you are a generally healthy adult who likes to drink milk, and you’re wondering about which particular type of cow’s milk is the best way to go.

In the past, I’ve simply recommended fat-free or low-fat milk.  I’ve done so because that’s what the government recommendations say to do. In recent months, however, I’ve been learning a bit more about milk (and have also become wary about the influence industry has on the government’s dietary recommendations).

Although I don’t have first-hand experience (I’m a little lactose-intolerant), I purport that drinking raw, whole milk from healthy, well-treated cows that eat grass in the pasture is probably the best way to go. That’s because the nutritional profile of milk from cows that eat grass — rather than corn — is better for you.  It’s also better for the environment… And for the cows. (Here’s a good discussion of grass-fed vs. grain-fed cows).

[Update: See Kate’s important comment about the dangers of raw milk.]

Unfortunately, tracking down grass-fed, raw milk can be difficult, if not impossible (oh yeah, and it may be illegal). Even if you can find a good source, it’s probably quite expensive compared to just going to the supermarket. So, you ask, what about the typical pasteurized-homogenized store-bought stuff?

First, I recommend buying certified organic dairy products whenever possible (though if I had to choose between pastured-and-grass-fed-but-not-certified-organic, and corn-fed-and-Organic, I’d go with the first option).

After that, it’s worthwhile to know what happens to most milk before it gets to you.  To start, it’s combined with milk from hundreds or thousands of other cows.  Then it’s spun in a centrifuge to remove the fat. Next, the fat is added back into the milk to the desired percentage, and the fat is homogenized [good description, though from an obviously biased source] to keep it from floating back up to the top.  Then it’s pasteurized and finally packaged up and sent on its way to the store.

So this type of “whole milk” is not really whole anymore.  It’s been split apart, put back together, and heavily processed.

If it’s going to be pasteurized-homogenized milk, especially if it’s from cows that are eating corn and not grass, we may be better off avoiding the fats altogether. The nutritional profile of the fats in the milk is going to be different (worse) from those cows.

Additionally, by drinking non-fat milk, it reduces the overall calories — and the fewer calories we drink (rather than chew) the better. Quite a few studies have shown that liquid calories are not registered by the body as well as solid calories, so if we drink our calories, we tend to consume more overall.

In choosing your milk’s fat content, though, I wouldn’t stress too much about those few added calories. Drinking water instead of milk will make a bigger difference than choosing 1% instead of 2% milk — unless you drink a lot of milk.  Also, if there’s more fat in your glass of milk, it may increase your satiety a bit — meaning you’ll feel fuller longer. If that’s the case, the extra fat may be beneficial overall.

On a related note, we’ve switched to using real butter in our house instead of butter-replacements like Smart Balance or Earth Balance. That’s not for everything, mind you — we still use plenty of olive oil, and I’m loving my unrefined coconut oil.  But we’re buying butter only made from grass-fed, pastured cows. The fats are better for us, and it tastes better, too.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

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Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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Sara Thompson
February 1, 2012 8:43 am

You mention skim milk. It’s sad that the health studies of skim milk have been overlooked by so many people but last fall a study was released that said skim milk is bad for you. If you choose skim milk that is organic it might be okay but commercial skim milk is mixed with powdered milk and it’s the powdered milk that has been shown to have problems. They oxidize the milk to make it powdered and that process changes the chemical components of the milk. Oxidizing is bad and can be cancerous. We have become so comfortable in eating skin and reduced fat because we all fear being fat. The truth is the methods that are used to reduce fat are so awful. It’s better to eat the whole food, fat and all, or skip it all together.

February 1, 2012 7:48 am

Thanks for this informative post. I think issues like this really reveal the significance of the food decisions that we make every day. I learned recently that a psychologist was named chair of the FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee — the group that advises the public about food and drug safety — a psychologist whose research background is in judgment and decision making. Choosing what to eat in a food culture such as ours is somewhat overwhelming, especially considering all the contradictory (raw milk good or bad?!) out there. I wonder about what steps can be taken to advance public education to make factors affecting these decisions clearer… maybe what is needed is simply decision making skills training in general!

February 1, 2012 6:39 am

Hi Andrew. Thanks for the great post. I am surprised that no one brought up the milk depleting calcium from your body debate. This is a long standing debate that I imagine could ruffle some feathers. I am not here to debate it. I am simply hear to share the information that I have read, watched and heard. Please check this link out if you are interested: http://saveourbones.com/osteoporosis-milk-myth/

We give our kids coconut milk mixed with almond milk as an alternative.

I am no dairy hater, let me tell you. The amount of cheese and yogurt in this house would drain any cow.

Quite literally, food for thought.

January 31, 2012 10:54 am

Had raw milk for several years, then lost my source. It was sooooo good, never made us sick and we miss it!!! Raw milk is better for digestion and has so many wonderful nutrients in it. Pathogens??? I think NOT!!!!!!! The fat globules are the perfect size for our digestive tract until they pasturize and homogenize. It ruins a wonderful thing.

January 31, 2012 10:32 am

Me again. I just found this great video today – it’s long, but good.

January 31, 2012 9:09 am

I drink raw goat milk from my own goats, but I’m not going to get into that debate. I do want to mention though that you didn’t touch on how unhealthy nonfat milk can be. It’s not just “skimmed” milk anymore because they add back dry milk which contains oxidized cholesterol (which is used in research to create atherosclerosis). You’re much better off drinking whole milk,even if it’s highly processed.

Reply to  Andrew
February 4, 2012 6:43 pm
January 31, 2012 5:46 am

So I just started taking a raw dairy class where we are learning to do things like make butter and cheeses the way our great grandmothers used to. Raw milk, from grass fed cows who are only fed the appropriate percentage of grain (4% or less of their body weight) is not dangerous as the naturally occurring bacteria-lactobacillis acts as a “cleaning agent” to keep other bad bacteria out. If you have read anything about probiotics recently…lactobacillis is what the producers put back into dairy products. So if you know your farmer (local) and know that they know what they are doing, Raw milk does have some health benefits. And Andrew….those who are lactose intolerant (everyone is to a degree) do not have to worry about drinking raw milk as the other milk enzyme lactase is still intact which is what allows the body to break down the lactose. The… Read more »

Sarah Delawder
January 30, 2012 7:57 pm

I’ve been struggling w this question a lot. We drink SO much milk (between an almost 3 yr old and my husband), it’s not prudent at all to buy anything other than 2 gallons every time we go to the store. Here’s what I need–gallon-size, whole, pasteurized, non-homogenized, grass-fed milk. Go.

Reply to  Sarah Delawder
February 6, 2012 10:44 am

Check out Kalona supernatural. I don’t know if it comes in gallons but it meets all the other requirements that you are looking for.

January 30, 2012 7:26 pm

Andrew, Way to go on the real butter! That’s the first change I always recommend people make b/c it’s just easy, and important for REAL food. Great to-the-point post! 🙂 Katie

brigitte mendoza
January 30, 2012 6:06 pm

To learn more about raw milk check out http://www.westonaprice.org. it’s an informative resource.