Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How Do You Choose Your Milk?

Milk hasn’t been a priority of mine for very long; Noah’s birth helped spur me towards changing what kind of milk I drink. Much of the milk in the U.S. is produced in bad conditions, where cows’ lifespans are extraordinarily reduced because they’re forced to produce vastly more milk than is reasonable. I’m a big milk drinker, but that’s a topic for another day.

The question is: is milk still good if produced in bad conditions? I think the answer to this can be pretty nuanced: It depends. It’s likely not morally good; it’s not necessarily healthy, but it depends on what else you’re eating as to whether it’s healthy: “Healthy” is a relative term, and your choices depend so much on how much money you have. Maintaining life, particularly in the economic north, always comes at a cost, and my perspective is that I have to terms with that while trying to minimize that cost.

Organic milk vs non-organic is not the only choice here. Buying organic doesn’t necessarily mean you can sleep easy at night, knowing you only drink happy cows’ milk. But restless sleep doesn’t mean anything to cows, either. So here are some things I think about when choosing milk:

1. Cost
If cost is your greatest concern and you’re buying non-organic milk, buy really cheaply at convenience stores like 7-eleven or Store 24 (or Market Basket, of course). If the savings add up, use them to try other kinds of milk for a month, to see how you like them. For those of you in Massachusetts, the cheapest organic milk I’ve found is the 2% Stonyfield at Target ($3.29 for a half-gallon) and the Amish Organic milk at some Market Baskets (2.99 for a half gallon)

For most of us cost is a major factor in deciding what kind of milk we drink. For adults with other sources of Vitamin D and calcium, reducing quantity in favour of quality is a possibility. For the most part, you get what you pay for. That said, non-organic milk at Shaw’s costs as much as organic milk at Market Basket. Overall, non-organic milk is extraordinarily, and artificially, cheap.

Before I talk about the different facets that make up choices over quality, I’d like to suggest that, for those of you who are currently buying only the cheapest milk, consider a gradual transition rather than an overnight one. For example, consider buying organic milk at the end of the month when you discover the budget allows it. And then gradually increase your budget.

2. Taste
Choose milk you love
I’d forgotten how good milk can taste. I compared Garelick Farms (1%, non-organic), Market Basket brand (1%, non-organic), Archer Farms Organic (Target brand, 2%, organic), 2% Stonyfield (Organic), The Organic Cow, Trader Joe’s brand (both organic and non-organic). Of the non-organic milk brands, I liked Garelick Farms best. But to date, my favourite brand overall, based on taste, is Stonyfield. I like that it’s also relatively cheap for organic milk. Trader Joe’s actually has the cheapest gallon of organic milk (5.99/gallon) but I didn’t like the taste that much- the 2% seemed pretty watered down.

3. Organic vs. Non-Organic
Research the farm/group of farms, not just whether it's certified organic
If you have access to milk where you have visited the farm and seen how the cows are treated, I don’t think that the “organic” label matters nearly as the farm itself. That said, based on taste, there’s a clear difference between organic and non-organic milk, whether or not I know much about the farm. So switching to organic milk has been my gateway drug: a starting point before I try to consider all these other important categories.

4. Small farm vs. Large Farm
If you can, choose a farm that's interested in serving the masses (no, I'm not sure what exactly that means)
About a year ago, I wrote about this interview with Joel Salatin. I believe he makes a powerful case for small, local farms. The organic giant, Stonyfield, has helped me take the leap, so I’m very grateful to them for this, even as I'm not sure they're the place to land for the long term. I’d love others to weigh in on the debate, as sourcing milk locally seems really important but I’d be interested to hear the argument for large networks of farms. I'd love to hear how we could make sustainable, respectful farms the norm, rather than the expensive exception.

5. Raw vs. Pasteurized vs. Ultra-pasteurized
Consider pasteurized milk, rather than ultra-pasteurized (I don't know about raw milk yet
I’m actually just starting to read about the raw milk movement, so I’ll review a couple of books in a few weeks; I don’t know enough to comment on raw milk. Most milk that I’ve encountered on the shelves-- including all the large organic milk brands-- is ultra-pasteurized, to make it last longer in your fridge. But I think food should go bad. It’s normal. I’ve found some pasteurized milk from Maine at our coop, and I’m going to use it to make yoghurt and decide whether to start using it exclusively.

6. Packaging
Returnable glass if possible, cartons second and plastic last
Glass, plastic, or cartons? Many cities around the U.S. now recycle cartons (Check the full listing here), which makes them a better choice than previously. I’d say try for glass, and if you can’t go for cartons, and if you can’t go for plastic. What do you think?

If you drink milk, how do you decide what kind of milk to drink and give to your family?


Dan Archibald said...

These are our main milk priorities, in order:

1. Produced locally
2. Small farm
3. Reusable packaging
4. Sold locally

That the milk we buy tastes delicious is just an added bonus! Cost doesn't enter into the considerations: although we're pretty poor in terms of disposable income our situation is good enough that we don't have to worry about abandoning other priorities for the sake of a good price.

As I said in another comment a while ago, we drink whole milk from Shaw Farm in Dracut, and buy it from Chip-In Farm around the corner from us. It comes in glass bottles that are sent back to the dairy and reused. It isn't organic but--much like the situation with the chickens at Chip-In, where we get our eggs--I trust small farms to take better care of their stock.

We do drink less milk now than we did when we were buying it by the gallon from the supermarket--or, I should say, I drink less milk, since Leah was a vegan back then. But that's alright since it tastes so much better: every glass is really a treat!

leah said...

We also switched to whole milk when Harvey started drinking it... we drink less of it, but it's delicious!