Not your grandma's milk
Photo: Michael KappelMilk protein concentrates
Yet another product that ends up in industrial dairy products is milk protein concentrates. MPCs, as they’re called, are made by ultra-filtration — milk is forced through a membrane to remove some of the lactose. MPCs have less carbohydrates and more protein than other milk solids and are often used in protein bars and drinks as well as in some processed cheeses, according to Metzger. Nonfat milk solids are approved for food use but MPCs are not considered GRAS, or generally regarded as safe by the FDA.
“MPCs have undergone a change,” says Bunting. “They cannot be reconstituted into anything called milk.” He suspects that the protein in MPCs is not as digestible as that in milk, but it has never been tested. He says Kraft, in particular, uses a lot of MPCs.
Lorraine Lewandrowski, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Newport, N.Y., is also concerned about MPCs. “MPCs are derived from milk, but they’re not really milk,” she said. “There have been a lot of complaints by farmers concerned about MPCs being added to cheese to boost production.” She says that typically around 10 pou
nds of milk yields one pound of cheese. MPCs — many of which come from overseas — can increase yields considerably.
Planck is troubled that most MPCs are being imported from countries such as New Zealand, Mexico, and China. “We cannot trust foreign governments with the safety of these ingredients,” she says. According to Metzger, MPCs must appear in ingredient lists, but the country of origin doesn’t have to be labeled.
Milk doesn’t have to contain nonfat milk solids, MPCs, or any other additives. Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures, offers an alternative in California. “What is in our bottle comes straight from grass-fed, pasture-grazed cows. All we do is chill it and test it,” he said.
In the New York region, where the sale of raw milk is illegal, small dairies leave their milk unhomogenized and pasteurize it at low temperatures to avoid damaging the milk molecules. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t have access to real milk from a local dairy farmer whose operations are transparent. “The real issue is trust,” Bunting said. “If people could buy from someone they trusted, we wouldn’t even need pasteurization. It extends shelf life, but it’s not a safer product.”
Even when milk is produced regionally, farmers still encounter processing hurdles. Lewandrowski raises 60 cows on pasture and knows them each by name. But since she can’t afford her own bottling facility, her grass-fed milk gets mixed with that from farms across the region (many of them large-scale dairies that feed their cattle grain and keep them in confinement) and gets shipped off for use in a myriad of dairy products. “People tell me I should bottle my own milk,” she says. “But I don’t have the $50,000 it would cost.”
Meanwhile, industrial milk production is being shaped to increase profits in counter-intuitive ways. “Americans are drinking more skim milk, while they’re consuming more milk fat, in the form of ice cream and half and half,” says Bunting. In some areas, he points out, school districts have banned whole milk and are serving students skim milk.
“Part of the idea is to take that fat and use it somewhere else more profitable,” he says. McAfee agrees, “They have butchered milk into its parts and now make more money because of the low fat craze.”
So how can Americans gain access to real, unadulterated milk? This would require a re-localization of dairy production, which would mean more dairy farmers. “Look,” Bunting says, “if you don’t want industrial processes, then we need more people producing food.” Of course, in order to make that work, we’ll also need a much more robust support system for dairy farmers, and a larger base of consumers willing to pay more for milk produced on a smaller scale.
Get Grist in your inbox