Saturday, February 23, 2008

the raw (real) deal

So I did something yesterday that before about three months ago I never dreamed of: I bought raw milk. What is "raw milk," you say? It's milk that's well, milk. It goes directly from the cow to the container to your glass--just like Bessy the Cow (and God) intended. Real milk (let's just agree to call it what it is from here on out) is non-pasteurized and non-homogenized. That is, it is not heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes ("gentle pasteurization"). It is not heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds ("standard pasteurization"). It is not heated to 280 degrees for two seconds ("ultra pasteurization"), and it is certainly not heated to 280 degrees and then stored in aseptic boxes that have been sterilized with hydrogen peroxide ("ultra high pasteurization" or UHT). As a result, real milk lasts about a week in the fridge, while other types of milk last longer ( two or three weeks for "standard," eight weeks for "ultra," and (yikes!) up to ten months for UHT.) Heating the milk to these high temperatures is meant to safeguard the quality of the milk, to boil away bacteria that can cause food borne illness. Most of our milk travels a far distance from farm to grocery in large tanks. Along the way it undergoes some level of this process.

Homogenization, which here in the US of A followed on the heals of pasteurization, is a process that blends the fats in the milk (the cream that rises to the top) with the rest of it. By quickly straining the milk through a fine mesh, homogenization marries the two parts. This is apparently a plus for us milk consumers; we just don't want to see that thick yellow stuff gathered at the top of the jug or (sigh!) and it's an inconvenience to shake the jug and mix it all together before we pour a glass. The downside of homogenization, besides the fact that it's not really necessary anymore (it used to be that milk was portioned out from big containers, giving some customers an unfair amount of fat from the milk, while skimping others) is that the yellowness of the cream in milk is a barometer of its quality; the yellower the milk the better the quality. I wonder if we saw our industrial milk (and butter before it's dyed) for what it is--white with very little yellow hue--if we'd think it was pure due to its whiteness, or if we'd recognize its low quality ?

One thing is becoming increasingly clear to many people: real milk tastes wonderful and offers many health benefits. Any form of pasteurization depletes many of the vitamins, available calcium (the kind that your body can use), proteins and omega-3s in milk. This is why most milk (even the pasteurized/homogenized "organic" gallon in my fridge I bought last week) is fortified with vitamins D and A. It's not that Bessy didn't pump out some good milk with good vitamins, fats and proteins (especially if she dined on grass and not corn mash!) it's that they were destroyed in the fire. You see, real milk contains heat-sensitive folic acid, vitamins and essential fatty acids (those little entities that unlock the calcium, aid vitamin absorption, etc). Real milk also contains good bacteria that pasteurization, by design, destroys. If you've ever known anyone to take acidophilus pills, their system needed those good bacteria from foods like real milk. Real milk, it turns out, benefits human health in several, formerly unknown ways; it combats cataracts, arthritis, even some forms of cancer (thanks to Nina Planck, Real Food for these stats).

If real milk is so great, why aren't more of us drinking it? The reasons are complex and manifold. One reason is concern for public health. Along the industrialized food producing-buying-consuming chain, which, let's be honest, is where most milk these days comes from, milk tends to spoil before it reaches our glasses. Milk is rather delicate, not liking long roadtrips in big stainless steal vats. As well, apparently sanitation on large dairy farms can be, ahem, a soft science, with Bessy standing in muck past her hooves, eating corn products that make her sick (so she needs antibiotics,) and with milkers not being as sanitary as necessary with their work (it would be easier to use good hygiene when milk is going to your neighbor rather than to a faceless, nameless consumer far, far down the highway). As a result industrial milk is an easily tainted product--one often in desperate need of a hot anti-bacterial bath. Another reason is accessibility: many of us live far, far, from Bessy's home and so can't just run out to our barn, or anyone's barn for that matter, and pick up a jug of the good stuff. Historically speaking, at the lowest point of Big Dairy's past, dairies near big cities ran amuck (literally), with cows called upon to munch on whiskey mash that was left over from the distillery down the road, and where, as a result, the milk produced was far from anything we might recognize as coming from a cow (and that which we wouldn't dare pour on our wheaties).

Reforms have happened in the 100+ years since Dairygate, yet pasteurization--a direct result of the tainted milk and poisoned milk drinkers from that period--remains. Industrialized production churns on, I believe, not primarily for health concerns, but instead because of convenience and easier profit.

So that's some of the info I have gleaned on the topic of late. Now I challenge you to educate yourself on this issue. The culmination of my study found me standing in front of the cold case at my local food co-op (it turns out I am just a little too far from Bessy's barn for a quick milk run to the farm). There I stood gazing through the glass at a half gallon that looked like all the others, save this: "our family has been producing fine dairy products for three generations and this non-pasteurized, non-homogenized milk is a product of a small herd of dairy cattle managed in a traditional, sustainable manner under I watchful care." I was frozen there for a second; it may have appeared from my stare down with the dairy case that I had happened upon a road-side bomb or trip wire. But years of indoctrination about the social and nutritional responsibilities of pasteurized milk gave me pause.

The good news is I got over my mental block. Today I woke up and decided to make myself a latte from my good ground beans which I ran through my stovetop espresso pot and, you guessed it, warmed (not boiled!) real milk in a pan. I'm sure my family was amused (or irritated) at hearing how delicious that latte was, but I just couldn't stop oohing and aahing. Had I never drunk milk before, or what?

Above I said that I live just far enough away from Bessy and Pleasant Valley Dairy (Bessy's milkers) to prohibit a trip to the farm, to the source of all this bovine goodness I'm describing. As Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, Nina Planck, et al suggest, however, I'm going to make at trip to the farm as soon as I can. That way, I'll see how things are run and, more importantly, shake the hands of the people behind this nectar of the gods. And maybe that's one of the larger points behind all of this: go to the source, do a little poking around and see how real the food (in this case, the milk) is that I consume and serve to my family and friends (this may take effort, but isn't it much more straight forward than trusting a USDA inspector or a factory somewhere in Dairyland with my health?) Oh, and before I leave for the farm, I won't forget to pack a cooler to stock up on all those good dairy products.

For any of you interested in finding a real (raw) milk farm or source near you: go to:

Just because I know Kate and I experience mind meld on this (and many!) topics, here's the connection for Miami:

Miami Beach: South Beach Wild Oats Market, 11th and Alton Road, Miami Beach 33139 (305) 532 8286 Ask for Dan. Regularly stocking and displaying Golden Fleece Raw milk in the dairy case. Delivery day has been Fridays. They are also taking special orders for other Raw milk products from Golden Fleece Farms.

Ciao Fellow Cow Lovers,



kate ortiz said...

thanks for looking that up for me! i found that info a bit back after reading nina's book. i've been meaning to call that wild oats and see if they still deliver. then i have to muster up the energy to cart the babes along with me out to the beach. thanks for reminding me about this. we've started buying from the company "natural by nature." it's pasteurized but not ultra-p and it's grass-fed. baby steps, right?

Kelli said...

You're welcome!

Yeah, baby steps are good! Grass-fed is probably the best milk, however we can get it...and of course the most important aspect is to be able to trust the supplier.

Onward retro eaters, onward!

Theresa said...

Thanks for writing this.

Kelli said...

Sure! What is your experience with raw milk?


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