Mention the word “dairy” to your average paleo enthusiast, and they’ll shake their heads and mutter to themselves about potential toxicity issues, food allergies, and the untrustworthiness of these types of products. And they’d be right – this subject area is a very difficult one to navigate, as dairy products are typically shrouded in mystery and have the potential to throw your clean dieting right off the rails.
In Part 3 of our food shopping series (check out our guide to fruit and vegetables here, and our guide to shopping for meat, poultry and fish here), we’ll explore how to tell if milk and other dairy-based foods are good for you, how to find high quality ingredients in your supermarket or at the farm gate, and hidden dangers you need to look out for.
Read on, to continue your training towards becoming a supermarket superstar!
Is dairy and milk paleo?
From a strict Paleo standpoint, dairy was not consumed in the Paleolithic Era (aside from human milk, that is!), and for this reason many of those who follow a regimented Paleo diet stay away from it.
But just because something wasn’t available to our ancestors doesn’t make it inherently bad. Good quality dairy is an amazing source of nutrition, designed by the animal that produced it to be loaded with saturated fats, beneficial bacteria, essential fatty acids, proteins, vitamins and minerals. As it is the first thing a newborn calf, kid (in the goat sense) or lamb drinks, it provides a vital burst of nourishment that this animal needs to survive the first phase of it’s life.
Now, while this milk was not designed for human mouths, there’s no reason why we might not gain benefit or nourishment from it. In my opinion, it’s the same as eating good quality eggs – they clearly weren’t designed for human consumption, but they’ve attained an almost godlike status amongst the Paleo community, and are celebrated for the vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats they can provide us. Milk is the same – we can benefit from the same compounds that the calf, kid or lamb would thrive on.
Where dairy gets a bad rap is with regards to lactose, casein and the potential for introducing synthetic toxins into our bodies. It’s important to note, however, that this is usually only a problem when buying regular, grain-fed, store-based milk or dairy products. These products are made from cows (and to a lesser degree, sheep and goats) which have been raised on a diet consisting almost solely of GMO corn and soy, while being confined to tiny pens inside horrific dairy factories, away from the sun. These animals are also regularly injected with hormones, to make them grow faster and produce more milk, and antibiotics, to prevent them from developing diseases due to their unhealthy living conditions.
All this nasty stuff gets into the milk, while all the good stuff (the beneficial bacteria, digestive enzymes, saturated fats) gets removed during the processes of skimming, pasteurization and homogenization. The result is a dairy product devoid of nutrients and healthy fats, which is now missing the very bacterial cultures and enzymes which make it easier for our stomachs to digest in the first place (and which would otherwise prevent us from developing lactose or casein intolerance).
Why raw milk is NOT dangerous
Unfortunately, the agricultural industry has made it ridiculously difficult to get your hands on good quality dairy. Most of the US states continue to impose a complete ban on the sale and distribution of raw milk, citing antiquated cases of people becoming sick or even dying from consumption of raw milk that was somehow contaminated. These fears are based on a system of pasteurization which was introduced back before the invention of refrigerated transport and storage, when milk or dairy products could become eventually become contaminated by harmful pathogens after sitting in a warm place for too long.
Well, as it happens, we have fast, refrigerated transport now, and cold storage, and fridges at home – so those claims about the necessity of pasteurization are completely redundant! What’s more, those stories of people getting sick from raw milk were almost always due to that milk coming from cows which were raised in undesirable conditions – like the small pens, with antibiotic-injected, hormone-enriched, grain-fed cows I talked about earlier. If the cows themselves are raised in pasture and allowed to roam free under the sun, these health concerns are even more redundant.
In actual fact, you’re far more likely to get sick from drinking regular pasteurized milk than you are from raw milk! One expert even goes so far as to state that “you are about thirty-five thousand times more likely to get sick from other foods than you are from raw milk”. So quit worrying! If, however, you still find yourself shaking in your boots at the very notion of drinking something which hasn’t been heated to smithereens, check out this article we wrote a while back.
How to buy good quality, healthy dairy products
Rather than going into too much more of a rant about the dairy industry and how it’s turning people against one of the most nutritious (not to mention delicious!) food sources available, lets get down to business. You came here to learn how to ferret through all those nasty dairy products and locate the actual good, healthy ones, and the below table should help you do just that. The table is laid out to present the most desirable sources of dairy first, then works down the list to products which you should probably just stay away from altogether. Remember – if you can’t find good quality dairy, it’s generally better to just cut your losses and eat or drink something else.
It turns out that making a table to show how best to prioritize your milk is a difficult task. Hopefully the above gets the point across: the highest quality milk and dairy is from humanely-treated, grass-fed cows (and sheep and goats) that have been raised on an organic farm (which implies that they’re free from hormones, antibiotics and probably GMOs). The best milk is also raw and full-fat! As you work down the table, the dairy becomes progressively less good for you when it is no longer organic or full-fat. To provide a rough indication, I’d recommend regular (daily to 2 or 3 times a week) consumption of dairy products which are found in the green category, occasionally (no more than once a month) for those products in the orange section, and never buying those products in the red. ESPECIALLY dairy which is raw but comes from non-organic, grass-fed cows…although you’re fairly unlikely to ever come across that!
Finding good quality dairy is difficult, but not impossible
During our time living in Canada, Liivi and I became obsessed with the idea of getting our hands on a regular supply of grass-fed, raw dairy. It was very, very difficult, on account of strict Canadian laws which prohibit the sale of raw dairy products, and because 99.9% of the dairy farms there are grain-feeding. After much searching, we eventually came across this website, which got us in touch with a cooperative that provided real, organic, humane, grass-fed, RAW milk and dairy products. They products were expensive, but boy, were they good!
In the US, state governments are slowly starting to loosen up the laws, following increasing pressure from the public. Check out this interactive map to see whether your state allows the sale of raw milk in-store, or at least at the farm gate.
If you live in an area that is prohibitive to raw milk, however, don’t dismay – you can generally still get your hands on some high-quality, grass-fed dairy products, even if they’re not raw. As we travelled through the States and Canada, we would keep our eyes peeled for either the Kerrygold brand or the Anchor brand. Kerrygold comes from Ireland while Anchor comes from New Zealand, and both are produced from grass-fed cows, with no hormones and no antibiotics (I would know: I used to work for Anchor as an environmental officer!). You’ll often find Kerrygold butter or Anchor butter in your supermarket, and sometimes also Kerrygold cheese. Elsewhere in the world, you’re more than likely to stumble across a range of Anchor products, including Anchor butter and Mainland cheese. Failing that, order them on Amazon: