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Make the Most of Your Milk Money

Ever wonder if you get the best value for the milk and other dairy products in your refrigerator?

With retail milk prices expected to rise 15 to 20 cents per gallon by early summer, it's something to think about.

No matter what the price, though, consumers can make sure they're getting the most value for their dairy dollars.

"It's mostly a matter of comparing prices and nutrition labels," said Connie Crawley, a food, nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"In general, the lower the fat content of the dairy product, the more of a nutritional value it provides," she said. Milk, sour cream, cheese or even yogurt all follow this rule.

Crawley said store brands may often prove the best nutritional bargain for dairy products, especially for fluid milk.

National name brands and store or generic brands of milk contain virtually the same nutrients. Often the same dairy cooperative provides milk to both the national bottler and the grocery chain.

The nutrient content of individual milk jugs may vary. But Crawley said that's due to how much light the milk has been exposed to. Opaque containers, usually colored plastic jugs or waxed paper cartons, protect the milk from light.

"Light destroys the riboflavin, a B vitamin, in milk and dairy products," she said. "But most milk stays in the grocery store a short enough time that plenty remains in the milk."

Crawley said consumers should pay attention to the "sell by" date on the jug, too. Some stores discount milk at or near that date, and you can save some money by buying when it's on sale.

It's safe to buy near that date, as long as you plan to use it within three to five days.

Buying larger quantities can save money, too. The cost per ounce for a gallon of milk is much less than the cost per ounce for a half-gallon or quart. Again, Crawley said, comparing prices is the best way to find bargains.

Regardless of the dairy products you use, prices have to increase to keep Georgia dairies in business, said Extension economist Bill Thomas.

Most Georgia dairies contract to sell all of their milk to cooperatives, which contract with wholesalers or retail outlets.

The milk-demand cycle matches the school year. "As school lets out and then starts again in late August," Thomas said, "milk demand drops and then increases."

This year, though, about 10 million Olympic visitors will increase Georgia's population in July and August. That's millions more people wanting milk and dairy products.

"That's increasing demand very suddenly, and cooperatives may not have the local resources to meet the demand," Thomas said.

If local farmers can't meet their contracts, they have to pay to bring milk into the Southeast to meet the demand. The shipping costs drive prices higher. Or they drive dairies out of business, and the resulting lower supply drives prices higher.

"Without our local farmers, prices will go up even more when milk must be shipped into Georgia to meet demand," Thomas said.

"It's not that dairies are making big profits," he said. "They're not even making enough to stay in business."

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