Got Milk — Get Real?

by | Apr 22, 2024 | Nutrition, Real Food

Photo by Brian Suman, Unsplash

Have you ever thought about what it took to get a glass of milk on the table? Find out how milk is processed, what it’s composed of, and how to decode the different labels in the dairy aisle.

In 2022, the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB), renowned for its iconic “got milk?” campaign, unveiled a new slogan aimed at encouraging consumers to choose “real” milk in response to the burgeoning variety of plant-based alternatives. The CMPB’s initiative emphasizes the authenticity and nutritional benefits of cow’s milk, suggesting it stands superior in the face of modern milk substitutes. This bold stance raises pivotal questions about the production, processing, and nutritional content of cow’s milk, offering an opportunity to explore its “realness” in depth, especially with the increased availability of milk alternatives.

The journey of milk begins with the dairy cows, specifically the management of pregnant dairy cows. To continuously produce milk, cows must give birth to a calf approximately once a year. After birthing, lactation begins, and dairy cows can produce milk for 10 months. The cow is usually inseminated 3 months after giving birth to continue the cycle of producing large quantities of milk.

The subject of what is permissible to administer to lactating cows brings us to the discussion of a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone used to increase milk production, called “recombinant bovine somatotropin” (rbST). The use of rbST has been a topic of debate, leading to its ban in many countries, although it remains approved by the FDA in the United States. However, due to consumer demand, many dairy producers have voluntarily opted not to use rbST, and products often carry labels stating “rbST-free” (FDA, 2019).

Cow’s milk naturally contains various hormones, including insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), estrogens, and progestins. These are present due to the reproductive cycle of the dairy cow. Studies have examined the implications of these hormones on human health, but the scientific community consensus is that the levels found in milk are too low to have significant effects on human health.

The processing of milk is a critical step in ensuring its safety and extending its shelf life. This includes pasteurization, which involves heating the milk to kill harmful bacteria, and homogenization, a process that breaks down fat molecules to prevent them from separating. These processes do not significantly affect the nutritional value of milk but play a crucial role in consumer safety.

Before any processing begins, the total fat content in cow milk ranges from 3.4% to upwards of 5% depending on cow breed and diet. As dietary preferences and health guidelines have evolved, so too have the varieties of milk available on the market. Milk can be found as whole (3.25% fat), 2%, 1%, and skim (fat free) milk. While many may be under the impression “whole” milk does not have any of the fat removed and therefore may be less processed, in actuality, the milk fat is in all cases removed from the liquid and then added back in varying amounts.

Raw milk is milk that has not undergone pasteurization. While some advocate for the consumption of raw milk due to its natural state, it carries a higher risk of containing harmful bacteria and pathogens. Health authorities, including the CDC and FDA, strongly advise against the consumption of raw milk, especially by those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, and children (FDA, 2020).

Another option you may notice in the dairy aisle is A2 milk. A2 milk is gaining attention as a potentially easier-to-digest alternative to conventional cow’s milk. This emerging variety comes from cow breeds that produce milk containing only the A2 type of beta-casein protein, unlike the more common A1 and A2 protein mix found in standard milk. Some individuals who experience discomfort or digestive issues when consuming regular milk report fewer symptoms with A2 milk. This is attributed to differences in how A2 beta-casein is digested and metabolized in the body.

The campaign to “get real” with milk by the CMPB underscores the ongoing debate surrounding the nutritional value and safety of cow’s milk versus plant-based alternatives. Understanding the lifecycle of dairy cows, the regulations surrounding their care, the processing of milk, and its nutritional content provides a foundation for making informed choices about milk consumption. Certainly cow’s milk does offer a rich source of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Still, you may want to also consider the context of animal health and ethical considerations.

Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD

Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD


Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD, our Food and Nutrition Writer, is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Manager at Keck Medicine of USC in Arcadia, CA. You can find her at the barn or in the grocery aisle reading a label.

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