By: Lisa Costa Bir, Naturopath
Most of us are aware that the days of milk coming straight from the cow's udders to the milk jug on the breakfast table are long gone thanks to the pasturisation and sterilisation of milk that occurs before we purchase it, however you may not be aware of the extent to which your milk is being tampered with; in saying this, is this tampering really such a big deal?
In April 2012 I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald* that reported of a green, slimy by-product known as 'permeate' being added to milk, without consumer consent or knowledge. I was outraged. 'How dare they?' I initially fumed, though to be honest, besides my daily coffee I rarely consume milk. But after doing some research I must say that i feel much more comfortable with permeate being added to milk. Why? Read on.
Permeate is just fresh milk with the fat and protein removed. It is not a genetically modified ingredient or a slimy waste product you might find in a bin that some news reports have made it out to be. The fat and protein is removed from the milk via centrifugal force and filtration. And, just so we are clear, there doesn't appear to be anything health damaging about drinking milk with added permeate, in fact permeate is actually found occurring naturally in milk.
Why is permeate added to milk? According to milk manufacturers, permeate is added to dilute fat and protein levels of milk. This is because levels of both these nutrients fluctuate with the change in seasons: for example in summer, cow's milk may be creamier. To keep the product consistent (both nutritionally for the label and also for consumer tastes) permeate is added to the milk and provides a standardised product.
If seasonal variation was the only reason companies were adding extra permeate to milk it would probably be no big deal. What is a big deal and what is a ruffling more then a few feathers is the suggestions that the real reason permeate is being added to milk is because it cuts costs for milk companies. The Sydney Morning Herald article reported that up to $22,960 can be saved just by adding 16% of permeate to the production of 350,000 litres of whole milk. With the price war on milk that is going on between the major supermarkets, any way of reducing milk production costs is favourable suggesting that the addition of permeate to milk is a way of increasing profit for supermarkets. We've all wondered how supermarkets can afford to sell milk and other staples so cheaply, perhaps this is one way.
Most people assume that the milk they buy at the supermarket is a food source that has not been changed, apart from sterilisation and pasteurisation to remove bacteria. Therefore there is an ethical issue in companies not disclosing that permeate has been added to milk, especially as there is currently no necessity for companies to add the information to the label that accompanies the milk. There are further ethical issues in the treatment of dairy cows to produce the quantities of milk needed for such a low price, and the pressure upon dairy farmers who may see very little profit in their work.
In response to this lack of disclosure the public has protested. We want to know what exactly is in our milk and we have the right to know. If milk contains 80% fresh milk and 20% added permeate (remember this is basically fresh milk with the fat and protein taken out of it) we want this on the label. In a bow down to public pressure for products as close to their natural state as possible and probably in part due to clever marketing, some milk companies, including Pauls, PURA and Dairy Farmers, have decided to omit permeate from their product. From July 2012, they will display on their labels 'permeate free' or 'free from permeate'. This transparency has been applauded because it offers the consumer a choice as to whether we'd like permeate or no permeate in our milk.
For those of you like me who don't consume much or any dairy-based milk this may not be an issue but for those of you who do drink cows' milk what do you think about this? Will you be choosing milk that has no added permeate or have you tasted permeate free milk? Does it taste better?