Dairy is one of those topics that come up a lot here at the Wellness Center. Many of our patients discover that their digestion or skin is irritated by dairy consumption and end up avoiding it all together. Others find that raw milk or goat and sheep’s milk is fine for them, but that other dairy products still irritate them. There’s no doubt that when it comes to dairy everyone is different, and your tolerance can change over time. For example, if you have any auto-immune issues, leaky gut or a dysbiosis you might have to avoid dairy altogether until you’ve resolved the underlying issues. Because most dairy products available at the market today are very different from the dairy our grandparents drank (much like in the case of wheat and gluten!) many people also find themselves intolerant to it. There also seems to be a correlation between gluten intolerance and dairy intolerance. We tend to see a link between skin issues, especially acne, and dairy consumption, so if that’s you, try avoiding dairy for a couple of weeks and see if there’s any improvements.
Because this is such a confusing, heated and frankly quite controversial topic, let’s just dive in and see what all the terms mean and what all your options are. There are lots and pro’s and cons to sift through so bare with me!
Lactose is the sugar found in milk and is what a lot of people find themselves intolerant to it. As it turns out, a significant percentage of the population stop producing lactase – the enzyme needed to digest lactose in milk – at a certain age (all babies produce lactase in order to digest breast milk) and will therefore experience a lot of discomfort when consuming conventional, pasteurized dairy products. But, did you know that raw milk actually contains lactase – that enzyme I mentioned that helps you digest lactose? That’s right. Unfortunately pasteurization destroys all those enzymes, which means many of us (those of us who don’t produce our own lactase anymore) can tolerate raw dairy, but not pasteurized.
Interestingly, some populations who have been exposed to dairy for a long time, such as Scandinavians, have a much higher likelihood of also producing lactase and tolerating dairy just fine.
Grass Fed, Organic, Hormone Free – What’s What!
If you choose to eat dairy, it is always ideal to get dairy from pastured, grass-fed cows who have eaten the food they’re meant to eat (grass!) and been grazing outside in the sunshine. The sun is essential for the cow to produce enough vitamin D, which also ends up in the milk you drink. And the diet full of grass makes the milk higher in nutrients – especially the essential Omega 3 fatty acids.
As with any ruminant that is fed grains (ie corn), it will get sick from that diet and most of the time be treated with antibiotics. Also, most milk-producing cows today are given genetically-engineered growth hormones ( rBGH or rBST), designed to increase the cow’s milk production. Those antibiotics and growth hormones will also end up in the milk you drink.
Raw dairy is by far superior to pasteurized milk when i comes to digestibility and nutrient content. Simply put, raw milk is a whole food, while pasteurized milk is a processed and altered food. However, because the milk has not been pasteurized there is a small risk that it can contain dangerous bacteria. Although the milk is in fact sterile while it’s inside the cows udder, it can become contaminated once it’s been milked by equipment used or even the surface of the udder. So whether or not you ‘dare’ to consume raw milk is a risk assessment that you have to make for yourself and your family. If you decide to try raw milk, make sure to get it from a trusted farmer that takes great care to keep the milk safe. Also, in the US many states do not allow raw milk sales, besides directly from farmer to consumer, and this is without a doubt a very controversial issue, so do your research and ask around until you feel comfortable with your own decision – whichever way you choose to go.
Pasteurized, Homogenized and Ultra Pasteurized
Pasteurization is the process that heats the milk up to about 150F for 30 minutes to kill any dangerous pathogens that might be present in the milk. It also makes the milk last longer which is of course a great benefit to the producers and distributors. But unfortunately this process also degrades the vitamin A found in milk, destroys the naturally occurring enzymes (including lactase) and any beneficial bacteria that was originally in the milk. It is also becoming more and more common to ultra pasteurize dairy to make the product last even longer on the shelves. This process heats the milk up to an even higher temperature – 280F – to eliminate even more bacteria. This process is even more harsh on the complex molecules in milk proteins which basically makes them indigestible, causing a lot of inflammation and digestive distress.
The other processing technique performed on milk today is homogenization, where all the fat molecules get mechanically forced to be the same size basically making the milk proportionately higher in casein and whey proteins, potentially leading to milk related allergies.
Skim, Low-fat, Full Fat, Lactaid, Fortified – What Do I Choose?
The typical recommendation made by the USDA etc is to choose nonfat or low fat dairy products on the assumption that the saturated fat is damaging to our health. But now we know better! And the fats in milk are important for absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D! And the vitamin D is important for proper absorption of calcium. You see – when nature creates a perfect food, we shouldn’t go ahead and mess with it! All the different nutrients work perfectly together so if you’re going to eat dairy, always choose full-fat products to get the most bang for your buck. Also, make sure to read this article about skim milk on our blog!
Lactaid milk is basically just like any other conventional milk with some added lactase enzymes. You could just as easily take an enzyme supplement and eat your regular dairy product and save you the trouble and the money.
Fortified milk is very common these days, especially because all of the processing depletes the milk of it’s naturally occurring nutrients! Synthetic vitamin A and D are often added to milks, but these are not as easily absorbed by our body, especially not without the fat!
To cut to the chase, always buy full-fat dairy products.
Yogurt and kefir are fermented milk product that contains beneficial bacteria and can be healthy foods if you’re someone who can tolerate dairy. Just remember to choose your products wisely, keeping in mind my points above. Many people do find that the addition of the good bacteria makes these dairy products easier to digest. They can also be a great source of protein and fat – making them a good snack. However, make sure to avoid the sweetened varieties and experiment with sheeps and goats milk yogurt too to see what works best for you!
Bottom Line – What to buy
Best: Raw dairy from grass-fed cows
Good: Lightly-pasteurized, non-homogenized whole milk from grass-fed cows and then lightly-pasteurized, homogenized whole milk from grass-fed cows
OK: Organic milk – this milk usually still comes from grain fed cows but will at least be free of hormones and GMO’s
Worst: Ultra-pasteurized, conventional non-fat milk!
*Image of “rice pudding” via Shutterstock