Why Milk in France is a Completely Different Animal from Milk in the U.S.

Aug 26, 2009 by


THE FORMER MIGEON COWS produce milk in the Franche-Comte region of France for “Comte” variety of cheese.–photo by Anna Migeon

A nice big glass of cold milk—that’s something that’s pretty foreign to the French.

The typical French person of any age wouldn’t think of drinking a glass of milk with a meal. Even children hardly drink milk plain once they leave babyhood. Even coffee is generally taken black, maybe with sugar. At any age one might have café au lait or hot chocolate for breakfast or gouter, but that’s about it.


A FEW OF THE CHEESES produced in France. — photo by Anna Migeon

The French eat an amazing array of cultured milk products, though. France produces literally hundreds of varieties of cheese—no one knows just how many—from fresh and firm or fluid to dry and hard as a bar of soap, and everything in between. They make them from the milk of goats and sheep as well as cows. Every region has its own special types, formed by the climate, altitude, type of grass and breed of cow as well as variations of fat, added ingredients, temperature and aging. Small yet meaningful differences create infinite shades of variety in texture, flavor and appearance.

Then there are the several yogurts, and other categories unto themselves like my particular favorite, faisselle (sold dripping whey through its own strainer within the pot), the tiny Petit Swiss (almost like cream cheese, but eaten as a snack) and the glorious crème fraiche.

It seems to be mainly in America that humans drink milk straight and generally assume it’s a healthy choice.

Our milk itself also differs significantly from the milk found in France, which is more often raw and/or cultured and generally produced by pastured animals.

Problems with Pasteurization

Raw milk, readily available in France, contains good bacteria that protect us against possible bad bacteria. When we pasteurize milk, to add injustice to injury, we also destroy its beneficial enzymes. The process removes much of the nutrition of milk along with of a human’s ability to use whatever nutrition is left.

With today’s super sanitary technology procedures, we don’t even need to pasteurize our milk, but we still do.

Traditional Food Processing that Improves Nutrition

Though milk wasn’t a part of the earliest human diet, once we humans began to domesticate animals, we found ways to make it work.

The natural processes of lacto-fermentation not only provided a way to preserve milk in the absence of refrigeration, but also brought variety in flavor and texture and made it both easier to digest and more nutritious.

Ever wonder why we see so many milk allergies? Like wheat, it’s an imperfect food; the right methods are needed to improve it. Cultured dairy products are part of many traditional and outstandingly healthy ways of eating, according to research on non-industrialized societies in the 20th century and earlier. Overly processed, sterile milk and products like Velveeta are not.

Today, we’ve taken steps backwards by getting in the way of the course of nature.


LACTO-PERMENTATION IS WELL ADVANCED in these cheeses, found in a outdoor market in Paris this summer. — photo by Anna Migeon

Out to Pasture

Even if we started with the raw milk and rediscovered the traditional, beneficial processes, we are still short on the right cows.

The norm in France is still the small family farm.  My father-in-law’s herd of 50 cows, which he inherited from his father, was passed down to my brother-in-law, and then sold to someone else a few years ago. The descendants of that small, healthy group, pictured above, are still feeding freely on grass in their same pastures today. Giving them hormones is illegal.

Modern American cows, on the other hand, are “freaks of nature,” according to Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Raised in crowded, filthy pens, stimulated by hormones and improperly fed to produce abnormal volumes of milk, we pump the poor things with antibiotics when their health fails. The conventional cow, Fallon notes, is secreting pus along with their milk.

I wonder: could the French paradox—the fact that the French eat more fat than we do, yet have lower rates of heart disease and such—be equally credited to their milk, at least as much as their wine?


I just found a source for organic raw milk, produced by grass-fed cows, in San Antonio. They are licensed to sell raw milk, which is tested by the health department every other day, but not to deliver it. Kind of takes the renegade thrill out of it. I was rather hoping to buy it illegally.

Related post: French paradox: other possible explanations?

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 26 August 2009 / All rights reserved