how to shop for milk - what milk labels mean

Have you ever noticed that milk prices range from $2-$8/gallon? That's a big discrepancy and, while I am willing to spend more for high-quality dairy products, I want to know what I am paying for.

how to shop for milk - what milk labels mean 1
top shelf of our fridge

I recently put on my "detective's hat" and now have this list of basic definitions:

rBST-Free or rBGH-Free – Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), also known as recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), is a synthetic version of the Bovine somatotropin (BST) hormone found in cattle. The Monsanto-developed hormone was approved in 1995 for use in the USA. It is used by many commercial dairies to increase milk production.

Though rBST has been banned in several countries (including Canada, Australia, Japan, and the European Union), the FDA and the World Health Organization have determined it to be safe to consume.

That said, it is important to point out that the use of rBST has been linked to health problems for cows - including mastitis and reproductive disorders.

NOTE: The top 3 grocery retailers in our nation - Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Costco - have pledged not to sell rBST milk in their stores.

Hormone-Free - Cows naturally produce hormones, so cow milk is never entirely hormone free. However, this label indicates that no synthetic hormones (such as rBST) are added.

Antibiotic-Free - It is illegal for any milk that has antibiotics to be sold in the U.S.

Organic –  Organic milk is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as milk from cows that have been exclusively fed organic feed, have not been treated with synthetic hormones (including rBST), and are not given certain medications to treat sickness.

* “USDA Organic” is the only independently administered certification.

Pasteurized - Pasteurization is the process of heating the milk to a specific temperature for a definite length of time and then cooling it immediately - in order to slow spoilage and eliminate harmful bacteria. Pasteurization can prevent diseases like tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and diphtheria.

Ultra Pasteurized - This is milk that has been processed at higher temperatures, for longer, to extend shelf life.

Raw - Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized. France, Germany, and England allow the sale of it - while Canada, Scotland, and New Zealand prohibit it. Here in the United States, 28 states allow the sale of raw milk, while 22 states prohibit it.

The concern is that improperly handled raw milk can lead to illness and hospitalization. Proponents, however, argue that the properties in raw milk can positively influence the immune system.

The Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both warn that raw milk is dangerous - especially for children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

Whole - This is milk in which no fat has been removed. Contains about 3.5% fat.

Skim - This is milk in which all of the cream has been removed. 2% is considered "reduced fat" milk and 1% is considered "low-fat" milk. Both reduced fat and skim milk have vitamin A and D added to replace the naturally occurring vitamins that are reduced when the fat is removed. Most skim milks also add skim milk powder to add body and whiteness.


Based on my research, we have been buying whole pasteurized milk that is rBST-free - and local, when possible (it’s always a good thing to stimulate the local economy and reduce environmental impact).

I am undecided on the “organic” label. Although it does indeed seem the most "trustworthy," it also costs A LOT more than non-organic milk.

Do you drink cow's milk? If so, what “kind” of milk do you buy? Which labels are most important to you and why?

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47 comments on “how to shop for milk - what milk labels mean”

  1. We used to drink pasteurized skim milk until I went through a phenomenal health program last year. Now I actually make raw almond milk and coconut milk at home for me, hubby and toddler. (it's unbelievably simple to do!)

    My 5 year old LOVES dairy milk, so I will buy raw organic milk (from pasture-raised cows) for him once in a while. Pasteurization started when factory farming did - the problem is that it kills enzymes that help digestion of the milk as well as good bacteria. I don't worry about potential pathogens in the milk since my family loads up on probiotics and nutrient-rich foods - we never get sick now which is such a relief! Plus we get it the raw milk from "kind" dairies rather than commercial ones with unsanitary conditions. I wish we had a farm close too!

  2. We drink an organic milk that comes in glass bottles and is from cows who live just a couple hours north of us :) We're going to go visit them this spring/summer (at least it's on the day-trip schedule!) I find that this particular brand simply tastes much better than the other stuff at the store - so that's what we buy - although it is expensive and there is a $2 bottle deposit we have to pay for each bottle of milk too.

  3. We try not to drink cow's milk at all. BUT I do still buy it as I have 1 child who loves it and I'm having a hard time switching him. Organic it is. Darn prices though. Back home, I used to be able to buy a store brand that was non-homogenized, which I see you didn't even talk about. It is hard to find!

    Otherwise I switch between Almond and Coconut and just this week found an Almond/Coconut Mix that is soooo yummy and we all agree that is great!

  4. We buy organic whole milk for our girls. However, because it is SO expensive, we buy the rbst free skim milk for hubby and I (I hate thick milk thus why I drink skim). We don't drink milk very often though, but if I did, I would research more into raw milk.

  5. We buy hormone free milk from a local micro-dairy (Halo Farms in Trenton, NJ). They only sell half gallons, but it is oodles cheaper than what we can get at the grocery store since we buy it in NJ and PA is a fixed price minimum on milk state.

    1. They also make their own no HFCS (at least most of the flavors, those that have oreos or something in them obviously have a little HFCS from those ingredients) ice cream, which is super yummy.

      1. How great that you have a local option for ice cream like that! It's not easy to find ice cream without HFCS at big-name grocery we've begun making our own as often as we can.

  6. I know that in Tucson, the Trader Joe's carries whole,non-homogenized milk. My mom used to get it. And isn't raw milk legal there? I can't remember...

    1. Yes, it is legal...but I don't know that I've ever seen it at the local grocery stores. I'll take a peek next time we're at Trader Joe's.

      (I still don't think that I'll buy it though). The CDC and FDA warnings scare me. ;)

      1. I thought the only difference between homogenized and non-homogenized is the fact that with homogenization the process forces the fat to move throughout the milk vs. non-homogenization where the fat sits on top.

        We drink raw milk during the milk months - April through November and in the winter we purchase milk in glass bottles form a diary where the milk is pasteurized but not homogenized and it comes in glass bottles. My husband gets lactose intolerant with regular milk but he loves the raw milk and can consume as much of it as he wants.

  7. I get local milk, whole and non-homogenized. I would do raw, but it's too pricey right now (and illegal in VA unless you do a herd share). I also stay away from ultra-pasteurized.

  8. Before we had to switch to soy for allergies we bought organic. I like supporting the way the cows are fed in addition to what's going to trickle down in to my milk. And maybe it was all in my head, but I think organic tastes way better than conventional!

    1. Thanks for bringing up the point about "taste differences." I have read that there can be variations in the way milk tastes - depending on pasteurization, brand, organic-or-not, etc.

      I actually don't ever drink milk by the glass (I only use it for cooking), but Tim and the girls do. Somebody ought to do a side-by-side taste-test to see if any particular "kind" of milk comes out with a better, fresher taste. That would be super interesting.

      Has anyone else noticed a difference in the taste of milk that is organic versus non-organic?

      1. I am very sensitive to the taste of milk - both in fat percentages and in brands, AND in conventional vs. organic. I can't drink 1% milk by the glass at all without gagging. I can RARELY drink "generic brand" milk either as it always has a metallic taste to me. And yes, I find organic milk to taste SO much better.
        I don't drink milk by itself a lot but I do eat cereal several times a week and I can still taste the difference! :)

      2. I find the biggest taste difference to be between pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized. Altho, we get a local milk and I totally taste the difference between that and a non-local pasteurized milk. Fresh is best! :)

        1. Good point! Food from local sources is almost always preferable to food that is transported from cross-country (or across the world!).

  9. I always thought Whole Milk had the fat removed for I wrong on that? anyway... we have committed to buying organic milk for over the past year with rare exception. why? b/c conventional milk can contain traces of pesticides, and hormones from the cow's diet. In CT Raw Milk is very hard to find and super expensive... otherwise I would go for that. Here's an article about raw milk you might like to look into (I haven't read all the links it leads to:

    Organic milk IS very expensive, but it's one of our steps in trying to go as much organic as possible. We have picked a few things we are committing to each year or quarter so our budget doesn't get shocked! :)

    1. Thanks so much for leaving that link, Julie! Although I often appreciate and generally agree with Dr. Mercola's perspectives on health issues, I also find his site to be somewhat biased and lacking in research. He usually states a well-crafted opinion, but then neglects to include links to outside research from well-regarded sources (which is problematic).

      I'm not confident that the "organic" label offers much more than the rBst-free label. It appeals to me that the certification ensures that cows are fed "organic feed" - but I have also read that organic labeling standards do not require the cows to be grass-fed. That leads me to wonder: What exactly is "organic feed" and is it actually better than "conventional feed"?

      I'd love to hear more about your research in this area. Also - Are there any farmers that want to jump into this discussion?

      1. Organic feed would not contain genetically modified corn and soy, which is very important to me.

        As far as the health of it, I don't think there is much difference. The real health benefits come from grass-fed cows. This article is interesting, and this paragraph sums up the major issue with American dairies (which is why I buy from local dairies where I see the cows on pasture.)

        Until last February, U.S. organic standards were vague on the grass question: they stipulated that organic cows have “access to pasture.” But as the organic-milk market has boomed, large-scale dairies have arisen that mimic conventional operations but rely on organic corn as feed. How did they get around the “access to pasture” stipulation? They tended to locate in dry places where not much exists, according to the organic watchdog Cornucopia Institute. The U.K. study’s findings suggest that “organic” milk from such operations wouldn’t be nutritionally much different than conventional milk.

        1. Very interesting. I'd like to see more rigid requirements for milk to receive the organic certification, including clear guidelines regarding "access to pasture."

        2. I just found this, thanks to the Stonyfield Organic website:

          "In 2010, the USDA issued a final rule on access to pasture for organic livestock – clearing up some significant confusion on the matter since the original standards were passed in 2002. Today, organic cows must be on pasture at least 120 days of the year, and they must go outside every day that weather permits, even when the pasture’s not growing."

      2. Yes I know Mercola is skimpy on outside links which I'd really love to see improved although I doubt he will b/c I am pretty sure his site/articles function to draw people to his products... It was just the first place I knew I'd find some info quick about raw/organic milk and I didn't know if you'd ever read him. I am still researching milk myself... and until we find a better solution organic seems a step up (?).

        I have yet to find a local farm that produces milk I'd want to drink regularly. :(

        1. I think you're correct in your assertion that Dr. Mercola is attempting to make a profit and increase traffic on his own site, but...I don't appreciate the tactic. Again, I often agree with what he has to say, but I almost never share links to his site because he neglects to "prove" his points with adequate research (other than his own).

          RE: organic milk. It does seem to be the most trustworthy of the designations since it is the only one that requires third-party certification. Kudos to you for moving in that direction!

    2. One more thing - Have you noticed that organic milk is often also ultra-pasteurized? There's a common link between the two (I'm not sure why)...which is another reason we sometimes just buy milk with rBST-free label.

      That said, you'll notice we buy organic milk too (see the photo above of the top shelf of our fridge). If it's reasonably priced and/or on-sale, we figure the added stamp of approval from the USDA is a good thing.

      1. I don't know why organic milk is often ultra pasteurized. I heard that it's b/c the organic doesn't sell as quickly so it helps it have longer shelf life. I dont get that. why not deliver smaller quantities more often? I guess it probably comes down to the bottom dollar - that would cost a lot more.

        1. So much of the food industry is profit-driven. ( much of the world is profit-driven). It must be hard for vendors to commit to high-quality when they are also struggling to thrive financially.

          1. Yeah, it's very difficult. This is why I prefer to shop small and local as much as I can. It's so much fresher and higher quality. But it IS expensive, no doubt about it. And not always convenient. Ideally we'd grow and raise a lot more of our own food, but we live in a subdivision on 1/3 an acre so. Not happening, lol.

            We are planting a veggie garden for the second year in a row. VERY excited about that. It really gets the kids involved too. Oh and we're joining a CSA for the first time! YAY!!

            1. Tim just built and planted a 12' X 6' garden at his grandpa's house. It's going to be our family's version of a "community garden." Everyone will help maintain it - and reap the benefits! :)

      2. Yes. I can't seem to find organic milk that is JUST paturized. CT has some weird and strict laws for milk it seems, also for butchering meats so we have a hard time finding good organic meat at prices that are reasonable. (CT is just a very expensive place to live!!).

        1. I read an article once that made the claim that it was preferable to drink pasteurized rBST-free milk over ultra-pasteurized organic milk...but I need to do more research in that area.

          For now, we switch back and forth between buying rBST-free milk and organic milk, depending on price and availability.

          1. yes I have read the same (also can't remember where! LOL) and if I could find it, that is what I would get. Ultra Pasturization is only done to increase the shelf life to my knowledge so... as long as you're going through milk quickly, it shouldn't be necessary! :)

  10. you have such a succinct way of explaining things. it took me 3 lengthy posts to get all this in! LOL.

    I drink local, organic whole milk that is low-temp pasteurized. I with I could find some that is not homogenized. I would never buy milk with rBST or the other one, and I try never to buy ultra pasteurized anything.

    1. Remind me: Weren't you drinking raw milk at one point? If so, I'd love to hear what changed your mind on that!

      Like you, we avoid ultra-pasteurized milk...but haven't made the switch to "raw." Pasteurized milk is more widely available where we live and I also don't feel confident in the safety of raw milk products.

      1. Yep, we drank raw milk for several years. I do believe it is much healthier. I know it is a different food b/c I get horrible stomach aches from pasteurized milk (I'm assuming due to lactose intolerance) but I drank the raw milk just fine.

        But. My family recently got sick from it, so we've shied away. I may drink it again at some point but for now we have a decent alternative that is grass fed, local, organic, and low-temp pasteurized.

        I feel that cows being grass fed is the most important thing. It definitely trumps the organic certification in my mind. I suppose that would be hard to find in Arizona?? Or, there are grassy regions in the northern part of the state, right?

        1. I'd love to buy milk from grass-fed cows that are allowed to roam freely out on pasture. That said, I'm not aware of any farms near us that sell milk directly to the consumer - but I could be wrong.

          RE: Arizona. It's a VERY diverse state when it comes to climate and landscape. We have desert and cactus, pine trees and snow, and a little bit of everything in between. :)

        2. I forgot to mention that I haven't noticed a "grass-fed" or "raised on pasture" designation on any milk products in local grocery stores. Do some brands carry those labels in Pennsylvania?

          1. Only in the small, locally owned stores. The bigger dairies combine milk from various farms, so while some of it may be grass fed (the farm behind my house has cows outside every day, but they sell to bigger dairies that combine it with all sorts of other milks :-( ) they can't label it as such.

            There is a local dairy near me, Natural By Nature, where they grass fed on their label, and that is what I get these days.

  11. The big organic dairy foods companies are owned by companies that you wouldn't buy from.In fact, almost all organic foods are owned by about 10 big companies, of which, Clorox owns Burt's Bees, Pepsi, Phillip Morris, Dean foods& I'm trying to think of the other names Stonyfield yogurt sometimes comes from milk that is dried, powdered & brought from new Zealand , then reconstituted & made into yogurt here in USA.It's real local. LOL I'll try to find the article I read on this.Here is a page of them.

    and this specific one.

  12. Is Arizona a milk share state? While it's not legal to sell raw milk in Colorado, you can own part of a share of a cow and get milk directly from a farm that way. While I'd love to see the sale of raw milk legal, it's a great way to have access at this point.

    1. Yes, I think it is...but the options are limited (and not near where we live).

      Also - "Arizona currently permits the sale of raw milk and raw milk products as long as they carry the required warning label" (via -

      Although our family tries to avoid ultra-pasteurized milk, I'm still not "sold" on the benefits of raw milk. I would be more likely to go that route if I knew a farmer well, but - for now - we prefer to buy pasteurized milk to prevent illness.

  13. We don't drink much milk at all in our house. I buy 2% and mostly use it for cooking, but I definitely always by the rBST free stuff. That goes for any dairy products in our house!

  14. We buy whole, fresh milk at the farm down the road. Some of the things that are important to me include the glass bottling, getting to know the dairy operation and the fact that I can get my free-range eggs at the same time!

    1. What a wonderful set-up! I'd be delighted if we had a farm just down the road. That seems like an ideal way to get fresh, high-quality dairy products...and it's an added bonus that the milk comes in glass bottles.

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