Did you know that June is Dairy Month? To celebrate the first day of June, we are going to honor some true fan favorites in the dairy industry and explain how they get from the farm to your fridge. We will cover products made from cow milk, but technically dairy can come from any mammal (sheep, goats and others)!
This list of dairy products wouldn’t be complete without the originator of all other dairy products. Your mother probably told you to drink milk when you were younger to make your bones grow stronger, and she was right! Milk serves as a great source of calcium, which helps with bone and tooth strength. Milk has other excellent components too. It provides eight grams of high-quality protein per serving (8 oz) and important parts of a person’s diet, like vitamins B, B12 and A, along with phosphorous and potassium.
We know that most milk comes from cows, but it doesn’t come straight out of the milking machine into the gallon jugs that we buy at the grocery store. The process that milk goes through from the dairy cow to your glass is a multi-step, highly regulated and careful set of operations to ensure that the consumer gets the best product for their money.
First, a dairy cow is milked on a farm. She produces about 8.5 gallons of milk every day. That milk is cooled from her body temperature to around 40 degrees and then is transported off of the farm by a truck. Before transport, the milk is sampled and is tested before it can be processed. The tests look for taste, look and temperature, but the milk is also tested in a lab for bacteria count, presence of antibiotics, and other quality factors. After that, the milk goes through a separator to separate the milk fat from the rest of the milk. The milk is then separated into the different types that we buy in the grocery store, like reduced fat and skim. Vitamins A and D are added at this point in the processing to increase nutritional content.
Next comes pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization is the fast heating of milk to kill bacteria in the milk. Homogenization is the spreading of milk fat throughout the milk so that the cream doesn’t rise to the top. Then the milk is packaged and sent out to stores to be consumed by you! Milk usually takes around 48 hours to get from the dairy farm to your table.
If you’ve been baking bread like nearly everyone has during quarantine, you may have purchased some butter to spread on your sourdough, banana bread, or cinnamon twist loaf. Butter is high in calories and fat, and it provides some vitamins, like A and E.
When milk goes into the separator, it separates milk fat and the remaining liquid milk. That milk fat is collected and turned into other products, like butter. The milk fat is called butter cream, and it is pasteurized and then churned into butter. During churning, the butter cream’s particles are combined and clump into butter, discarding a liquid called butter milk. The butter is churned for about an hour, and it is during this time that flavoring and other add-ins, like salt is added. The butter is then packaged and sent out to stores for you to purchase.
You scream for it, I scream for it, we all scream for it- ice cream! A beloved summertime favorite, this frozen treat can also be made at home, (and in the classroom- here’s a lesson plan) but we’re going to look at the processing that happens on a large scale in an ice cream factory.
Ice cream is composed of three different dairy products: milk, cream, and buttermilk. Other ingredients include: sugar, flavoring and add-ins, additives for processing ease, air to keep the ice cream light, and sometimes eggs. The dairy products are homogenized and pasteurized, and then the ingredients, except for the final add-ins, are whipped together in a tube that freezes the ingredients as it stirs the mixture, while blowing air into the mixture to keep it light and fluffy. After that, the add-ins, like cookie dough, birthday cake or brownie bites are mixed in and the whole mixture is packaged, frozen, and delivered to a store near you.
Greek, low-fat, frozen, in a tube––yogurt comes in many forms. Some types, like low-fat yogurt, are a healthy source of protein and calcium. Yogurt can also contain probiotics, which can increase gut health.
Making yogurt is an interesting process. It starts with milk, but may include other dairy
ingredients, like milk fat and solid, dry milk in order to achieve the solid and fat content. Ingredients that can also be added at the first step include stabilizers, sweeteners, and some flavorings. The milk is pasteurized, homogenized and cooled, and after that, the cultures are added. The main cultures are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These cultures interact with the lactose in milk to produce lactic acid, which causes the yogurt to ferment and create the creamy texture. The yogurt sits until the pH level reaches 4.5, and then is cooled to stop fermentation. The mix-ins, like berries, are then added into the yogurt, or are put at the bottom of the packaging to be mixed in by the consumer, and the yogurt is sent out to stores.
Cheese comes in many different forms and types, but nearly everyone has at least one type they enjoy. So whether it’s melted cheddar in your cartoon-character mac and cheese, shredded Parmesan sprinkled on a pasta dish or a chunk of brie surrounded by olives and curated meats on a charcuterie board, this dairy product finds a way to work its way into nearly every meal.
Making cheese starts with milk, like every product on this list. However, with different
types of cheese, the order, steps and time vary to create a great variety of cheeses. For cheese made from pasteurized milk, the milk is first standardized and pasteurized or heat treated. Then it is set to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to allow for optimal bacteria growth. Next, starter cultures, called lactic acid bacteria are added, along with non-starter bacteria and given time to begin the fermentation process. Then an enzyme called rennet is added to curdle the milk. At that point, the cheese forms a solid and it is cut and heated to allow the whey to drain from the solid cheese. The curd, which is what’s left after the whey is drained, is periodically flipped and piled to form a tightly knit lump. Next, the cheese may have another step to go through depending on the variety. For example, mozzarella and Gouda cheese are both put into a salt water solution. After that process, the cheese is cut into the correctly sized blocks and is aged. Aging varies based on type of cheese, but can take months or even years! Then the cheese is packaged and ready to be included in your favorite soup, salad, potato or pasta dish, appetizer, with crackers, or even just straight out of the package!
So the next time you enjoy a dairy product, remember the people who work hard to get an extremely highly regulated product from the dairy cow to your table. The process varies greatly from product to product. Why not go out and purchase your favorite dairy product to help support dairy farmers and product manufacturers in honor of Dairy Month?