Milk Money – Or Rather, How Should We Spend It?

Next up in my “What the Heck Are We Eating Series” – deciding what kind of milk to buy! There are so many choices today – “regular”, organic, hormone free.

I discovered for milk to be labeled as organic, it must meet four requirements:

  1. No Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) is used in the cows
  2. No antibiotics are given to the cows while they are producing milk for production
  3. The food the cows eat is grown without the use of pesticides
  4. The cows have “access to pasture.”

At first glance, these all sound like things I would want. But on further reading, I discovered marketing has made me think these are all things I want, while science disagrees.

The rBGH, or growth hormone, is used to increase the milk production in cows by 10 – 15%. Its use was approved by the FDA in 1993. The concern is that when the growth hormone is used in cows, there is a higher level of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) found in the cows. IGF-1 has been linked to more rapid growth of some kinds of cancer cells and tumors.

Scientific research has found that there are no higher levels of IGF-1 in people that drink a lot of cow’s milk produced with rBGH than in people who drink a lot of soy milk. The FDA estimated the “worst case scenario” for rBGH and IGF-1 absorption in humans from milk was a 1% increase in IGF-1 over what we naturally produce. Basically, negligible.

I did discover that the use of rBGH is not as safe for cows, as it is for us. The use of rBGH leads to more infections in cows. Hence, the next requirement for organic milk – it must be antibiotic free.

I learned that in “regular” milk, when cows have to be treated with antibiotics, they are taken out of production until a set period of time has elapsed after their milk tests negative for any trace of antibiotic. In organic milk, the cows are still treated with antibiotics if needed, but the cow is taken out of production for a minimum of 12 months. Either way, milk with traces of antibiotics is not sold for human consumption. However, the longer a cow is “out of production” the higher the cost to the farmer.

The third requirement is that cows be fed food not treated with pesticides. USDA studies have found that nonorganic milk can have trace amounts of pesticides in it, but the amounts are far below accepted levels.

The final requirement is that cows have “access to pasture,” which basically means grazing time. However, the amount of time is not defined. A cow can have a half hour of grazing time a day and meet this requirement. Unless more clearly defined, this requirement is meaningless.

After reading all of this, I decided that organic milk was no healthier than regular milk. However, I did have concerns about farming practices. So I did some more reading.

I found that while hormone use in cows does lead to more infections, it ultimately leads to better conditions for the cows. When farmers can get more milk out of each cow, they can make more money. With more money, they can afford better living conditions and better health care for the cows. The milk producers make more money off charging more for hormone-free milk, but this increased profit is not passed down to the dairy farmers. It basically goes in the pockets of the “middle man.”

As far as pesticide use, I think it is a “necessary evil.” Is it ideal for our health? No. Is it ideal for the environment? No. Do we have to use them to get an adequate crop to sustain farms and make produce, meat, and dairy affordable for everyone? Yes.

So I’m choosing to continue buying “regular” milk. However, Americans drink more milk than any other industrialized nation. So when the boys get a little older, we might cut back on how much milk we drink. Less milk means less worry about increased IGF-1 levels and ingesting pesticides from milk. Maybe I can focus on getting my calcium for the day from ice cream…hmmm…

Do you buy organic milk? Why or why not?


  1. I do buy organic milk although I alternate between that and rice milk (it depends what I’m using it for). I hate the idea of drinking pesticides but, as you point out, every option seems to have its pros and cons. As a child in Switzerland, I used to bike to the farm next door, get fresh milk which my mom would then boil and then we would drink it (less than an hour after the cow was milked!). Interesting post!

    • Wow – would love to have access to food that fresh! It has become a negotiation of trade offs these days when it comes to food. I am optimistically thinking that I am starting to see a trend of getting back to more simple and “real” ingredients in the food on the grocery store shelves. Thanks for reading and commenting!! :)

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