Did you make a new year’s resolution to “eat better” without defining specifically what you meant? or did you try to start the new year choosing all the healthiest, most responsible foods, and now you’re reeling at the difficulty of changing too many habits at once?
Sometimes it’s best to make one change at a time so you can focus on getting it right. (To make more changes in a year, try a new month’s resolution each month, or give up something for Lent.) One change you might make is choosing milk that’s better for your health and the environment.
Here are some factors to consider:
- Where does the milk come from? Where do the cows live, and where is the milk processed and packaged? Milk that travels a shorter distance from farm to packaging plant to store is better for the environment because less fuel is burned to transport it. Here’s a handy online tool for finding your milk’s source.
- Are hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides involved in the production of the milk? Did the cows eat grass in a pasture or eat genetically-modified corn or even gummy worms in a crowded barn? Grass is what cows are made to eat, and the milk of grass-fed cows contains more conjugated linoleic acid, which is good for the heart. Grassy pastures are better for the environment than concentrated animal feeding operations. Certified organic milk comes from cows who were not treated with hormones or antibiotics, ate food that was not treated with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and got at least some outdoor grazing time eating fresh grass. Many small farmers that can’t afford every detail of organic certification still manage to meet most of these standards.
- How is the milk packaged? Milk stored in light-permeable containers loses riboflavin and Vitamin A. If your milk containers are recyclable, will you actually recycle them? If you won’t recycle, do you have a second use for those empty containers? If you’re able to buy milk in returnable, refillable containers, that is the option with the lowest environmental impact: Washing and sterilizing a bottle uses much less energy than making a new bottle even from recycled material.
- Where can you buy the milk? If the milk that’s best according to all the other criteria is available only from a store that you otherwise wouldn’t visit, and you have to drive to get there, your car is burning fuel, which might be enough to offset the environmental benefits of that milk. Also, if buying better milk is inconvenient and time-consuming, you’re unlikely to keep up the habit. Aim to buy the best milk you can get at stores where you’re going anyway, where you can easily stop on your way home from somewhere, or within walking/biking distance (so you can double up with that resolution about exercise!).
I wrote about my family’s milk choices in 2012–check out that article for more detail. Since then, the milk that used to be our #1 choice is no longer available, but we’ve found a new favorite milk.
Our current preferred milk is from Brunton Dairy, which is only 30 miles away and gets all its milk from cows right there on its farm in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The milk is processed at the farm and put into half-gallon glass bottles which we return for refilling–so there’s no paper carton or plastic jug to recycle. The cows do not get hormones. (There’s no official statement about antibiotics or grazing–but the fact that the cows live on a small farm suggests that they get to eat grass outdoors in season. The milk is not certified organic.)
Another great thing about Brunton Dairy milk is the price! It’s only $2.89 per half-gallon at the East End Food Co-op. That makes it less expensive than any certified organic milk in our area and not much more than the cheapest milk in the supermarket.
Here’s how refillable glass bottles work: The first time we bought Brunton Dairy milk, we paid an extra $2 per bottle; that is a fully refundable deposit. When we finish a bottle, we rinse it, let it drain until dry, and then store it with our containers for bulk food so we’ll remember to return it to the co-op. When we get to the co-op, we turn in our milk bottles at Customer Service and get a laminated ticket for each one. Then we get full bottles of milk and give the tickets to the cashier to show that we’ve already paid the deposit. If we decide to stop buying this milk, Customer Service will give us $2 for each bottle we return. The only way we’ll lose the deposit is if we break or misplace a bottle. So far, that hasn’t happened–the glass is thick, not very fragile.
One downside of the glass bottles is that they’re transparent. We hope that the nutrient loss is minimized by the milk’s short travel time to get to us and by our using it relatively quickly after we get it.
When we’re getting low on milk and won’t be going to the co-op in the next two days, we fill in with organic milk from larger producers, as described in my older article. Prices have gone up, but the ranking of who has the best price remains the same: Costco is least expensive, then Target (where the store brand organic milk is now called Simply Balanced), then Giant Eagle (Nature’s Basket brand). Our procedures for deciding when to buy which milk in what quantity are the same as they were in 2012; it’s only our top-choice brand that has changed.
If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, look for Brunton Dairy milk in local stores. If you live somewhere else, what is your favorite local milk?