Got Confusion? The Truth about Milk

The baby calves at the dairy farm were adorable.

What kind of milk does your family drink? Do you pay more for organic? Do you shop around for the best price? When I was a kid, the only question was whether you drank skim or 2% or maybe whether your mom let you have chocolate milk. These days grocery stores carry a dizzying array of choices in the dairy aisle. Some people have very strong feelings about what kind of milk they prefer; others express confusion about what all the different choices mean. When it comes to dairy products, the question may not be “got milk?” but rather “got an opinion?”

As for me, I spent my first years as a parent not worrying about what kind of milk to buy but rather worrying about how to make sure Zuzu was getting all the fat and calcium that she needed without dairy products. Zuzu, of course, has a dairy allergy that she is just now beginning to outgrow at the age of eight. (JR, on the other hand, would subsist on cheese and yogurt if we let him.) When I was buying milk for just me and my husband to drink, I confess I didn”t think much about which kind to buy. I grabbed a gallon of skim and that was it. Some of my friends with milk-drinking kids, on the other hand, were going out of their way to buy organic milk, paying often twice as much for the privilege, citing fear of antibiotics and hormones in conventional milk.

Once I found myself in the position of buying milk to feed a growing child, I began to wonder what the right thing to do was. Although I am admittedly not very price-conscious in the grocery story, I did balk at $6 a gallon for the organic milk. My husband definitely came down in favor of conventional milk, citing a paper he had written in law school about artificial bovine growth hormone and his firm belief that it cannot be detected in milk. On the other hand, like many parents, I am concerned about what I read in the news about American girls reaching puberty at increasingly younger ages and a possible connection between that and the milk they are drinking. So many people I knew felt that buying organic milk is important — there must be something to it, right? If organic milk is really safer, of course I would pay more. But what if I was just paying more for marketing and there was really no practical difference between conventional and organic milk?I just wanted information that I could trust.


Who is the dork in the combine?

Back in July, I wrote about the new Illinois Farm Families Field Mom program which is designed to connect Chicago-area moms with real Illinois farm families in an effort to open up a dialogue between consumers and producers about food and agricultural production in this country in a way that cuts through the myths and media hype. Through this program, ten Chicago-area moms will have the chance to visit Illinois farms throughout the year and talk directly to the families who own and operate these farms. No topics are off the table. It is a chance for these urban moms who care deeply about what they are feeding their families to ask all their burning questions and to see what life on the farm is really like. And they will be reporting back on what they learn and see at the Illinois Farm Families website: Watch Us Grow.

I was lucky enough to accompany the Field Moms on their first trip, which took place on October 15. The Field Moms and I traveled to two farms that day: Larson Farms, a grain and cattle farm in Maple Park, IL and Lindale Holsteins, a dairy farm in Hampshire, IL. What a thrill it was to visit these two farms! I learned so much about raising beef cattle, about grain production and about how our milk is produced.  I met conscientious, hard-working farmers who care deeply about feeding people in a safe, environmentally conscious manner. At the same time, the farmers we met feel strongly that we cannot turn out back on technology if we are going to feed the exploding world population. At Larson Farms, for example, we learned how the Martzes analyze each acre of soil that they plant to make sure that they only use the fertilizer that they need — less fertilizer applied means less run-off — and that they plant their seeds in the most efficient manner. And that was just one example! To hear more about our trip — and to see a baby calf sucking on my perfectly manicured fingers — check out this short video.

But getting back to that pesky question of which milk to buy. While at the Lindale Holsteins dairy farm, I had the chance to really pepper the Drendels and their vet Brian Gerloff about organic versus conventional milk and the use of growth hormones. What I learned was very reassuring. First of all, did you know that the only difference between organic and conventional dairies is that organic dairies don”t use antibiotics on their cows ever — even if the cows get sick. (Did you ever get mastitis when you were nursing? Well, dairy cows get mastitis too. Conventional dairies give sick cows antibiotics and organic dairies do not.) I”m not saying that one way is better than the other; I”m just saying that that is the difference. But even conventional dairies who do give their cows antibiotics when it”s called for, take the cows that are receiving the antibiotics out of the milking rotation until he medicine has cleared their systems.  Most dairy farmers are part of a co-op, meaning that their milk is combined with milk from other farms at the bottling plant. And milk is regularly tested for antibiotics and other contaminants. A farmer whose milk was tainted by the presence of antibiotics would be liable for the cost of the whole spoiled batch of milk — a huge economic disincentive.

Here”s another interesting thing I learned about milk on the farm visit: all drinking milk is the same grade — the highest grade. Different prices for milk at the supermarket — aside from the organic — is purely a question of Cialis canada the name on the jug. All the milk comes to the bottling plant from the same dairy farms. The bottling plant puts it into different bottles and it goes to the grocery store. So there is no real difference between store brand or name brand milk. My takeaway? I”m buying the least expensive milk on the shelf. Period. It”s all the same. I”ve also decided that it”s not important to me to buy organic milk. Organic produce and organic meat I will still pay more for. But organic milk doesn”t seem worth the money to me. You may disagree and that”s fine. As long as we all know why we”re doing what we”re doing.

But what about the growth hormone question? You will notice that many conventional dairies no longer use artificial growth hormones (or rBGH) on their cows. Apparently, enough consumers had qualms about it that the dairy industry responded by moving away from its use.  While at Lindale Holsteins, Dr. Gerloff explained to the Field Moms what rBGH actually is. It is a naturally occurring hormone that is present in higher levels in dairy cows that have recently given birth. When cows get further away from their last live birth, their milk production slows down. (Any human mom who has nursed can relate to that.) So dairy farmers would give these cows a shot of rBGH to simulate the levels of hormones that a new cow mom has as a way of increasing that cow”s milk production.The FDA and many vets believe that there is no difference in the milk of cows treated with rBGH versus those not treated with it.

That explanation was very helpful but I wasn”t entirely satisfied. I knew that the EU and Canada had banned the use of rBGH in its dairy cows; surely these two governments would not have banned a substance without good reason. So I asked Dr. Gerloff about that. He explained to me that rBGH does have some potential side effects for the animals treated with it, including increased risk of mastitis (and now you”re back talking about antibiotics again) and twinning, which can be risky for the cows. Dr. Gerloff”s belief was that these governments had banned rBGH for animal welfare reasons, not for food safety reasons.

The point is: I didn”t know all this information about antibiotics, growth hormones and organic versus conventional milk before my farm visit. And I am someone who cares a lot about my food! Now that I know, I can make the choice that is best for me and my family. So whether it is important to you to buy organic milk or milk from cows not treated with rBGH or simply the cheapest milk you can find, we should all have these choices and we should all have the information we need to make the best choice for our families. I think if you keep up with the Illinois Farm Families Field Moms and their travels, you will learn a lot of helpful information and we can cut through some of the myths and misinformation out there on all sides.


  1. Cindy Fey says

    I’m really surprised and disappointed that this post claims to be “The Truth About Milk.” Your “facts” were acquired from hired spokespeople for the Illinois Farm Bureau whose self-proclaimed goal is to “improve the economic well-being of agriculture and enrich the quality of farm family life.” Their aims are not educational nor health-oriented. As you disclosed in your post about the Field Mom program in July, you are a compensated blogger for the the Farm Bureau, and for the corn, pork and beef marketing associations. It is difficult then to accept your objections to hormones and pesticides as anything but straw man arguments, set up so the anti-organic people can knock them down and call them “myths and misunderstandings.”

    Read this: Lots of good information about the differences between organic milk and that from cows treated with hormones, including this: compared to untreated milk, milk from hormone-treated cows contains more pus and more of the cancer-causing hormone IGF-1. The article also refutes your vet’s claim that the rBGH is naturally occurring. Nursing cows do secrete a hormone, but what is injected in cows to make them produce up to 10 times their normal capacity has been genetically modified.

  2. Emily says

    Cindy, I’m sorry that you are disappointed. Perhaps my title was not the best. I am not in a position to proclaim the truth about milk. I am simply trying to sort out all the information that’s out there like any other parent.

    You will notice that I am presenting what I was told by the dairy farmers and the vet that I met on my visit. Particularly with regard to rBST, I’m not taking a side in my post. Willingness to buy milk that is not organic is not the same as willingness to buy milk that contains rBST. I don’t buy milk from cows treated with hormones, and indeed, most milk on the shelves these days is rBST free

    You note that the people I met with have an agenda and so they do. But you must admit that Grist has an agenda as well. I’m simply trying to help create dialogue because there are well-meaning people with deeply-held beliefs on these issues on all sides. I’m glad you are participating in the dialogue. But it’s not fair to dismiss the information that I learned as devoid of truth simply because it comes from people in agriculture.

    And to clarify my relationship with Illinois Farm Families, I was compensated by them to help them find participants in the Field Moms program. That campaign has now ended because the Field Moms were selected. I am not being compensated by them any longer.

  3. Sarah says

    I appreciate that you are providing both sides of the story and focus on that consumers have a choice and should have a choice on the types of foods they purchase.

    Honestly the number of hungry people in the U.S. and around the world is something we should all be concerned about. When I read that Seasame Street introduced a new character who gets food from a food bank to better “connect” with their viewers, it truely made me sad.

    Thanks again.

    • Emily says

      Sarah, the need to feed a growing global population is a very real issue. I have learned from talking to farmers that this is a responsibility that they feel keenly. I may enjoy buying my fruits and vegetables from small local farms at my beloved farmers’ market but that does not mean that I do not see the need for technology to help feed the world.

  4. Vanessa @FrenchFoodieMom says

    It sounds as though your trip out to these two Illinois farms was fascinating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and helping to spread the word about what you learned. I went on a similar dairy trip last year, but to some California dairies (I wrote 2 posts about my experience: and ) and learned a great deal from my visit. I have also toured corn and soybean farms.
    On some of my trips, I heard some distinctly anti-organic rhetoric which disturbed me. It sounds as though you heard some too as it sounds as though one farmer or vet was asserting that organic cows can be milked while sick. I wish the farm and food dialogue could take place without anyone casting stones. We are truly in the midst of a food revolution as well as a population explosion, and we all need to learn more about how our food is produced in order to make the right choices for our families. Bottom line, making food is a business and there are choices that must be made at every step in the process in order to yield products at various prices. We need both conventional and organic farming methods and the public needs to know about both methods to keep everyone honest and to keep our food safe yet affordable.
    As for me, I purchase milk that is free of rBST. The hormone boosts milk production by 40% in cows and causes them to have much more infections, thus requiring more antibiotic treatment. The fact that it is a naturally occurring hormone doesn’t change the fact that if a cow is injected a much higher amount than she naturally produces, it is not natural. The fact that the substance is banned in the EU, Canada, and Japan to name a few countries is reason enough for me to steer clear of conventional milk unless it is certified rBST-free.

  5. Jill says

    Unlike the first poster, I’m impressed that you tried to show both sides. I really thought this would be a knee jerk yuppy mommy article that would attempt to make me feel guilty for not buying organic.

    You know my views on this, so I won’t hash it out here.