Whole milk versus skim? Or split the difference with 2% or even 1%? What about chocolate, so the kids will actually drink it? Is organic worth it? These are the questions mothers face when staring at the dairy case in the supermarket. We do our best, but do we really have the information we need to make this call?
Go For Whole:
When it comes to milk, I think we have to start with a look at essential nutrients. We want our kids to get as many vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients out of the milk as possible. Milk that has been altered can be an incomplete package. Skim milk may have the same amount of protein as whole, but without the fat, critical fat-soluble vitamins A and D cannot be fully absorbed. Without these vitamins, calcium absorption is impaired. Nature designed milk intelligently -- the fat is there for a reason, and in fact, it is the key to making the most of the rest of milk's components.
Can you skim the fat off milk, refortify it with vitamins, and then consume enough vegetable oil (in place of the milk fat), perhaps in a muffin, so that your body can fully absorb the fat-soluble vitamins, and hence, the calcium? Probably, but doesn't that seem a little convoluted? Why would humans need to go through such a bizarrely elaborate process?
Replacing nature's saturated fat with vegetable oil becomes particularly troubling when we consider where most vegetable oil (soy, corn, canola, safflower, cottonseed, etc.) comes from: a factory. Think about the process that converts rapeseeds into canola oil, for example. It requires high heat, solvents, deodorizers, and bleach. Or, as my delightfully sarcastic friend, Adele Hite, who blogs at Eathropolgy points out, "Y'know, stuff you do to dirty diapers." Wouldn't it be easier to skip all the industrial complexity and serve whole milk?
Don't Add Sugar:
Whole milk tastes better than skim milk, so you are less likely to have to pour sugar into it to get your kids to drink it. Now, I know some kids are so used to skim milk that they find whole milk a little hard to swallow, but children can and do gradually adjust to either. It seems, however, that with fat-free milk, stripped of the natural flavor the fat would typically deliver, chocolate or strawberry is often the choice. These fat-free, sweetened milk-like beverages are served with a smile in our school lunchrooms, by the way, and they are the worst choice for kids. Weighing in at 23 grams of sugar per cup, this is the same amount of sugar as a cup of cola. Perhaps we could just add a scoop of whey protein powder to soft drinks? Instead of fat-free chocolate milk, we could offer our school children protein fortified Coke -- bottoms up, kids! Choose Happiness... And, with no fat to slow the absorption of this sugar, the buzz of a blood sugar high awaits. (Just what the teachers want -- kids bouncing off the ceiling and then crashing.)
Grass-fed is Best:
Is organic milk worth it? It depends. Some organic milk comes from cows fed organic corn in fairly conventional, confined environments. That may not be worth much. Personally, I look for 'grass-fed' or 'pastured' on my milk carton. Cows are meant to eat grass, not corn, and their milk -- especially the fat in their milk -- is altered by the unnatural corn-based confinement diet. It also seems prudent to avoid milk from cattle that have been treated with hormones to enhance milk production. Organic is one way to get that, but you can also find non-organic brands that do not use bST and note that on their cartons. These local dairies often price their milk close to conventional prices, which is a considerable savings versus organic. When I can find it, I buy non-homogenized milk, as it has been treated more gently and seems more natural; if I lived near a trustworthy farmer with a clean dairy, I would serve raw milk to my family. But as a practical matter, I typically buy whole, grass-fed, pasteurized milk. The basic idea is not messing with milk, or messing with it as little as possible. That is the central principle.
But wait a cottonseed-picking minute...
Won't whole milk make my kids gain weight? There are lot of calories in that fat-- shouldn't we be skimming it off? The science, like this large study in JAMA Pediatrics, tells us that dairy fat is not associated with weight gain in adolescents. However, consumption of skim milk (for girls) and 1% milk (for boys) is associated with weight gain. Perhaps the skim milk or 1% milk leaves children less satisfied... almost as if something was missing from their glass (like the fat)? Never underestimate the power of saturated fat to assuage hunger.
What about heart disease? Doesn't saturated fat contribute to heart disease? Several large meta-analyses reveal that dietary saturated fat is not clearly linked to heart disease. Read more about the science, here, on Eat the Butter. I just came across a study done in Costa Rica, where the cows eat grass and the butter is grass-fed. Those who ate the most butter experienced half as many heart attacks as those who ate the least. There is something fundamentally wrong with the mainstream idea that saturated fat clogs arteries.
Further, the nutritional needs of children are distinct from adults. There is little to no evidence that saturated fat consumption in childhood is associated with future heart disease or any negative health outcomes. However, there is decent evidence that children on low-fat diets get "less than 2/3 the Recommended Dietary Allowances for calcium, zinc, and Vitamin E. They also [get] less magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin." (Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise, p. 152) We have to ask ourselves, why are most American children eating low-fat diets, including drinking skim milk? And how is it that our federally-funded school lunch programs are prohibited from serving our children whole milk?
Back in the day, farmwives served mostly whole milk, plus plenty of cream and butter. This antique cream separator* partitioned the skim milk (left), from the cream (right), and the cream was the prized commodity -- they savored it in cheese and other dishes or churned it into butter. Skim milk was the byproduct of their desire for cream. Sometimes they drank the skim milk; often, they fed it to the pigs.
*A special thank you to Nina Teicholz for bringing this vintage machine to my attention!