Decoding the Carton: How to Shop for Healthy Dairy and Eggs

Staff Writer
Food labels can be confusing, and this guide will help you easily navigate shopping for dairy and eggs
Yara Shoemaker

Organic is just the beginning to understanding where your dairy and eggs comes from.

Cows and chickens do us some pretty big favors. Milk and eggs are packed full of essential protein, calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12, and are enjoyed at breakfast (and dinner) tables all over the world. Low-fat dairy foods are also great for burning fat, too. Products such as Greek yogurt, mozzarella, and cottage cheese contain very little carbohydrates and a large amount of good bacteria that help promote a healthy gut, which in turns promotes satiety and healthy digestion. Because they’re also great sources for calcium and vitamin D, they help breakdown and release fats more efficiently, as well.

Unfortunately, some bad must come with the good: whole, unprocessed milk is rather high in fat, and eggs carry a lot of cholesterol in their little packages. If you’ve chosen to keep milk and eggs in your diet, you’re probably aware of these dietary caveats, but you might not know just how much a difference organic, ethical sourcing can make to these foods’ nutritional values. Reading the labels on your milk and egg cartons more closely will not only guarantee that you support farmers with the happiest animals, but it will provide the best support for your health.

American dairy farmers have access to a literal "cash cow" — bovine growth hormone (BGH). The hormone raises the body’s insulin growth factor, so the cow produces up to 60 percent more milk than an animal on an organic, hormone-free diet. This may seem like progress, but it comes with a price: in a study of U.S. women, the presence of high levels of insulin growth factor was found to raise the risk of breast cancer by seven times, as well as elevating the risks of colon and prostate cancers. And the pasteurization process that means to get rid of all the nasty things that can hide out in milk doesn’t eliminate the factor, so you could be dunking your cookies in some dangerous stuff.

Organic milk from pastured cows is naturally lower in fat, has a higher nutritional value, and contains more essential fatty acids (such as omega-3) than milk from conventional dairy cows. If the nutritional specs don’t convince you, then imagine this: a gloomy shed packed full of cows, each one standing in its own manure until it’s time to be milked. Now picture a green field full of peaceful cows, free to wander and graze until milking time. Which cow’s milk would you rather drink?

But before you dash off to buy the first carton of organic milk you see, pay attention: just because dairy is labeled as "organic," doesn’t mean it came from a grass-fed cow.

The organic label guarantees that:

  • The product comes from cows fed an organic diet with no animal byproducts
  • If cows are grass-fed, the pastures where they graze are chemical-free
  • No antibiotics or hormones are allowed
  • Grain feed does not contain genetically modified material
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Organic farmers often test milk for pathogens that could harm humans, while conventional dairy farmers just send it off to be pasteurized at ultra-high temperatures that kill both bad bacteria and good nutrients and enzymes. Ultra-pasteurized milk has a shelf-life of six weeks — is that what you would call fresh?