Who ever thought milk could be controversial? Most of us were raised on pasteurized milk. The process was commercialized in the late 1800’s and traditionally requires rapidly heating then cooling the milk to kill off pathogens. On its surface, this makes a lot of sense. By killing the pathogens that are growing in milk you are reducing your chance of getting a food borne illness. The main dispute with pasteurization is that it destroys many of the healthy nutrients, enzymes and healthy bacteria that we could also be getting from milk. If you want to get to the truth about whether you and your family should be drinking raw milk then its best to start with an open mind and examine the evidence out there to better weigh your risks and benefits.
Killing the bad pathogens
The FDA and CDC doesn’t mince words by telling us that raw milk can be dangerous for our health. Pathogens and disease causing bacteria can lead to illnesses, kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders or death. By heating the milk, typically to 161 degrees, we are able to destroy these disease causing pathogens and protect ourselves from their threat. Pasteurizing milk does not by any stretch eliminate your risks of food borne illnesses, but if you think of it as a spectrum, it is in theory reducing your potential exposure. There is plenty of research suggesting that dairy is a relatively low risk food compared to other foods, but there is no question that dairy was a prominent source of outbreaks and deaths throughout history, particularly before some of our food safety standards became common practice. We also can find studies suggesting that raw milk naturally has antimicrobial effects and the good bacteria actually tend to crowd out the bad bacteria, in effect killing pathogens. The process, called competitive exclusion (CE), is well researched and stands in contrast to the notion that we should be killing all the bacteria in our food. Since the pathogens in milk have to be introduced during the handling and processing of cows and doesn’t come from the milk itself, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that we could just as well stop pasteurizing milk, and instead improve the process to prevent the exposure of raw milk to pathogens.
Does raw milk really do a body good
That depends on so many factors, particularly in your ability to digest the milk and your ability to get equivalent or better nutrition from other sources of food. Raw milk is the perfect food for baby mammals and has been for at least 160 million years. One reason raw milk is so amazing is that it has the right combination of proteins, fats, carbs, minerals, and water tailored for each respective infant species to get optimum nutrition for growth. Even though milk is so incredible for nourishment and growth of an infant, most species are not able to drink milk at the end of infancy. They typically loose the ability to generate the lactase enzyme to digest lactose. It is believed that Europeans developed a genetic mutation that allows them to drink milk their entire life, despite the fact that 2/3 of the world is still lactose intolerant. The onset of agriculture and the departure from hunting and gathering left civilizations with dramatically high mortality, diseases and other serious health problems. Raw milk served as a food to these agricultural societies. Milk became linked to sustaining life by providing a source of fresh water and a healthy store of fat and animal proteins. So in those times, milk was without a doubt, an amazing source of nutrition. Today we see a different story unfolding. Less than 3% of Americans drink raw milk now that pasteurization has become the standard. Even though the CDC claims that pasteurization is not harmful to the nutrition in milk, there is evidence to the contrary. There are claims that it affects everything from absorption of calcium and vitamins to triggering unnatural autoimmune responses and allergies. Proponents of grass fed raw milk argue that its great for our health. These are the top reasons raw milk is so often touted; It is good for cholesterol, it has highly bioavailable vitamins like A, B, C, D, K, it has highly bioavailable minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron, it is high in omega 3s, it is high in conjugated linoleic acid, and it is healthy for your gastrointestinal track. Regardless of which study you decide to take as evidence on either side of the debate, we should all agree pasteurization is additional processing above what nature provides. We know that it kills large numbers of microorganisms including healthy bacteria like lactobacillus. We also know that pasteurization has only been a common practice for less than 100 years, giving us relatively little time to study the long term nutritional effects on the human species. I think we can safely conclude raw milk is likely more nutritious than pasteurized milk and it will vary from person to person how well they can digest and absorb all the nutrients found in milk.
What risks should I steer clear from
The great risk from raw milk is without a doubt food borne bacteria and illness. Raw milk of course is not the only place to get exposed to bad bacteria, but it was a common source of illness before 1900. Disease transmission of typhoid fever, diptheria, scarlet fever and tuberculosis were principle reasons why pasteurization made so much sense. As these diseases waned, new risks took hold such as E.coli, campylobacter, listeria, and salmonella. Exposure to bad bacteria typically leads to diarrhea and digestive related illness. Less common but possible are more serious infections such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). More than half of people with HUS will recover, but it could result in serious long term illnesses or death. Calculating the risk is quite tricky actually since we don’t always have great data and we can’t agree on a single trusted source of data. If you are examining reported illnesses from raw milk, you have to consider that some reports include raw milk products like cheese, and some people don’t even report because they couldn’t trace back an illness. Some estimate the number in the US to be a 1 in 6 million chance of drinking raw milk and needing hospitalization. This isn’t that far off from common odds given of a plane crashing, odds so slim that most people rarely think twice about flying. In fact, it has been argued that the chances of getting a foodborne illness from other foods are significantly higher. Some of the biggest fears come from the milk industry and the CDC itself. The milk industry stands to benefit from continued pasteurization since it gets them longer shelf life and therefore increases profits. The CDC has had many recent revelations regarding its funding practices of funneling money from drug companies and big agriculture through nonprofits, raising serious conflict of interest concerns. The CDC backs its claims with data on outbreaks and deaths from raw milk. For example, from 1998 to 2011 they emphasize there were 284 hospitalizations and 2 deaths from raw milk. They also say that 77% of outbreaks are caused by campylobacter. These numbers aren’t really that intimidating, when you consider campylobacter worldwide affects 550 million people a year and infections are generally mild. It typically comes from infected and undercooked meat. The risks are there but they don’t appear to be so overwhelmingly high that a reasonable person should avoid encountering raw milk at all costs. If the concern is bacteria from raw food, then we might also consider cooking popular foods like Sushi as well to minimize risk of exposure and outbreaks. As per usual, exercise caution and common sense when exposing yourself to raw foods. Young children, elderly and immunosuppressed individuals are more susceptible and should, as always, take greater precautions. For the rest of us, we probably don’t need to be overly concerned about getting a food borne illness from raw milk, so drink up.
Tips for those still thirsty for raw milk
If you're looking to get all the purported benefits from raw milk and fall in the camp that risks are relatively low, there are still some things to keep in mind that could help you lower your risk of getting infections.
- Find a raw milk farmer you trust. Research their reputation, safety practices and the health of their heard.
- Verify your milk farmer is meeting standards for testing and transparency (RAWMI Common Standards has a list of CA farmers).
- Avoid drinking raw milk if your immune system is suppressed or compromised.
- Raw milk has a shorter shelf life, so buy only small amounts to minimize your chances of bad bacteria growing.
- Consider doing a deep freeze on raw milk for 2 weeks. This kills some bacteria and parasites but may alter some of the nutritional benefits.