Dear Foodie: Got Milk, But Milk Got Complicated

Dear Foodie,

Just when I thought the world was safe, I look at plain ordinary milk and am bewildered. I assume raw milk comes directly out of… well, you know. Also, what is the difference between pasteurized, raw and homogenized? Should I favor one over the other? And, while we are at it, how about organic and the long shelf life? What’s with that?


Dear “Got Milk” and feeling gotten?

Like all other foods, the story of milk has gotten complicated with the advent of the local food movement. But, look at the bright side. Bessie the cow never had it so good to be basking in the limelight of a myriad of consumer choices. Many activists are fighting for the right to “do it in the raw…” that is, sell raw milk unfettered with rules and regulations authorities have deemed important for health and safety. Enter into the equation pasteurization and homogenization.

Basically, pasteurization was invented by none other than Louis Pasteur in the 1800’s. It heats milk to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time in order to kill the bad stuff. Unfortunately, and this is controversial, many good things are killed in the effort to get at the bad. A variant of pasteurization called UHT actually utilizes even higher heat. The death toll on the good nutrients is unclear – scientists say concerns are overblown; advocates for raw milk say pasteurized milk is seriously compromised in taste and nutrition. Raw milk devotees say that if the milk is well inspected for cleanliness it will not carry the disease borne organisms that brought about the need for pasteurization. (Well, excuse me for being skeptical given the number of food safety breaches we’ve seen lately).

Homogenization is all about the fat content and the form that it takes within the milk. Many believe that homogenization changes the composition of the milk and many are preferring pasteurized but un-homogenized milk that has to be shaken manually to stir up the fat that will naturally rise to the top. Whew. Let Dear Foodie catch her breath.

Why does organic milk have a really far out expiration date? The extremely high temperatures of UHT allow for longer shelf life (to ask me why is above my pay grade!). Many organic milk producers use this methodology because the smaller and far flung markets for organic milk require great shipping distance. The thing about UHT is that the high temps kill more indiscriminately – good and bad stuff alike even more than regular pasteurization. Thus, UHT pasteurization may become somewhat unattractive if nutrients are your thing and you don’t trust scientists who say not to worry. Also, high heat makes the milk sweeter because it alters the complex sugars. Some people like it and some don’t.

Before anyone gets carried away, we should remember that pasteurization was invented because of serious disease outbreaks with raw milk. Of course, all that is predicated on the need to feed people in masses. That likely requires a bit more intervention. If you know your farmer, the sanitizing aspects of the farm from which the milk came and you are willing to take a chance, getting “raw” sounds pretty good!

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