Back in January we talked about the role of animal products in the diet and how they contain nutrients not found (or at least not completely bioavailable) in any other foods. Unless you have an allergy or intolerance, if you're skipping milk or some form of true dairy (meaning dairy from an animal), you're missing out on a lot of health benefits.
The Power of Milk
1. Amino acids and enzymes: Milk in unprocessed form contains all eight of the amino acids (isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalaline, threonine, tryptophan, and valine) that are deemed essential for adults, "essential" meaning that our bodies cannot produce them and must get them from external sources (i.e., food). These proteins include key enzymes, enzyme inhibitors, antibodies, as well as proteins that bind to minerals and vitamins in order to make them more absorbable. Some of these proteins (like lactoferrin) also have anti-cancer and anti-microbial properties. Unfortunately, about 20% of the total proteins in milk are heat-sensitive and thus destroyed in processes like pasteurization.
2. Probiotics: Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are good for your general health but also specifically for proper digestion. Yogurt and homemade (and/or raw) sauerkraut are examples of common probiotic foods. Unprocessed milk also contains probiotics, specifically lactobacilli, a strain of probiotics that digests lactose (the sugar in milk), making it easier to digest and improving general gut health. As lactobacilli digest the sugars they create lactic acid, which actually improves absorption of calcium, phosphorus and iron, and gives the milk a tangy taste. This is why some fermented dairy products (like kefir) can be labelled lactose-free: all of the lactose has been digested by the lactobacilli. Other probiotics naturally found in raw milk include bifidobacteria, enterococcus and streptococcus.
3. Nutrients in bioavailable form: Unfortunately, getting your daily dose of vitamins and minerals isn't as simple as keeping track of nutrition facts, because not all nutrients are readily absorbed alone. For example fat-soluble vitamins that are ingested are simply passed if they are not consumed with fat and thus have no fat to bind to.
Some of milk's most bountiful vitamins are the fat-soluble vitamins A (important for bone health, the immune system and eyesight), D (regulates calcium and phosphorus absorption, important for strong bones, teeth and immune system), E (antioxidant that supports immune system and eyesight) and K (enhances longevity, improves blood clotting and strengthens bones). Vitamin B6, a vitamin which is destroyed during processing that involves heat and light, is in its most bioavailable form in raw animal products, like raw dairy or beef tartare, and is important for metabolizing fat and protein and for turning food into energy. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is an antioxidant that also aids in weight loss and is found only in pasture-fed milk and meats.
The nutrients in milk are arguably superior to the same vitamins found in other foods, not because they are molecularly different, but because they are naturally more efficient or bioavailable. For example, while vitamin K occurs naturally in greens and other vegetables, you are better off getting your vitamin K from milk because milk also contains the fat needed for proper absorption. Calcium can also be found in leafy greens and while it has a higher absorption rate than milk, it has less calcium per serving, so more servings of greens would be needed in order to get the same amount of calcium.
Buying Good Milk
I prefer grass-fed, whole, raw milk because it is the absolute least processed version. Most commercially available milk is processed to some degree or another, destroying some of the noted benefits that make milk such a nutritious food. The more processing the milk endures (pasteurization, homogenization, skimming), the less whole and nourishing it is. For some reason, raw milk is a divisive issue, but if you can find a good source of raw milk, it is in your health's best interest to do so. If it is illegal in your state, you may be able to find a "herd share" or a "milk share" program with a local farmer, in which you purchase partial ownership of a herd or a cow and thus own the milk that herd produces. In states where raw milk is legal, you can most likely find it in your nearest health food store or food cooperative.
If raw milk is unappealing or unavailable, at least try to avoid "ultra-pasteurized" milk, which is processed at extremely high temperatures. The higher the temperature of the pasteurization, the fewer proteins will survive as part of the final product. Of course, you also want to make sure the cow was raised without hormones or antibiotics.
After grass-fed and whole raw milk, the next least processed milk I recommend is grass-fed and whole, non-homogenized milk. This is milk you have to shake because the cream separates. I'm not a milk connoisseur but I've heard that non-homogenized milk is more flavorful than homogenized.
To skim or not to skim? The healthier option is not so obvious. Apart from being creamier and almost indulgent in flavor, whole milk is increasingly being shown as the more nutritious choice above skim or 2%. As mentioned earlier, you need milk's natural fat content in order to absorb its most desirable vitamins (A, D, E and K). Despite this, conventional, low-fat wisdom says that whole milk will make you more likely to be overweight, but the opposite is true. Full-fat dairy makes you less likely to be overweight or diabetic. So whole milk not only tastes better, it's also more nutritious and can help you manage your weight.
The most important advice I can give is to get grass-fed milk if you can. Apart from the fact that cows living on pasture are healthier, happier and better for the environment that those in confinement and fed on grain. Grass-fed milk has a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid, a nutrient that aids weight loss and prevents some forms or cancer, and is richer in vitamins A and E. How can you go wrong?
If you don't really like drinking milk by itself, stir in some unsulphured blackstrap molasses instead of chocolate syrup. Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refinement process, so it contains a lot of the nutritional benefits of sugarcane that you won't get from sugar, but still has a sweetness. Among the minerals found in molasses are calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and copper. Because it is very thick in consistency, pouring molasses straight from the jar can make a slow but sticky mess, so I usually coat a spoon by dipping it vertically into the jar of molasses, then stir the milk with that spoon.
We've only scratched the surface of the subject of milk. Think of this as Part I. Stay tuned for further discussion on this perfect food.