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The pros and cons to drinking raw milk

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

The milk debate: To pasteurize or not to pasteurize?

For raw (unpasteurized) milk lovers, summer is the best season for drinking raw milk. Cows that have been grazing on lush pasture produce milk often described by raw milk enthusiasts as “fresh, creamy and sweet."

Despite the challenge of getting raw milk (the sale of raw milk varies from state to state — often restricted to on-site sales at the farm or is altogether prohibited in some states), the raw milk movement is growing — and it includes mothers who are convinced of its health benefits for their children.

Raw milk, however, remains a controversial subject: both the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claim that raw milk is "dangerous."

A mom without qualms

Despite the FDA and CDC warnings, Jane Bies — a former cardiac nurse and an Omaha, Nebraska-based certified holistic health coach — decided that raw milk had a place in her family's diet. Three years ago, she introduced raw milk to her husband and four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 6 at the time.

Bies, who had grown up drinking only pasteurized milk, admits: "The thought of drinking raw milk used to scare me — that is, until I did my own research."

When a friend mentioned that he bought raw milk for his family from a small, local organic dairy farm, where the cows were 100 percent grass-fed, Bies was persuaded to give raw milk a real try. She called the farm first, and — after asking many questions based on her research — she bought her first gallon of raw milk. She loved it. So did her husband and kids. "We're a family of six, and we go through a half gallon of raw milk a day," she says.

The flavor and texture of raw milk, she says, is incomparable: "It's always creamy; sometimes, in the summer, it can have a grassy tang and, in the winter, it's extra creamy because the cows get some organic oats."

The raw and the cooked

It is important to understand the difference between raw milk, pasteurized milk, ultra-pasteurized milk and homogenized versus non-homogenized milk.

Raw milk comes from pastured cows (cows grazing on green grass most of the year) and retains all of its fat. Raw milk has not been processed in any way, and it is non-homogenized (i.e., left standing, a "cream top" will form). It is considered a "live" food.

Pasteurized milk is heated to 170 degrees for 19 seconds to kill potentially harmful pathogens. Most milk, including organic milk, sold in commercial grocery stores and supermarkets is pasteurized.

Ultra-high temperature (U.H.T.) pasteurized milk, also known as "ultra-pasteurized" milk, is heated to 280 degrees for approximately two seconds (using superheated metal plates and steam), and then chilled. This process produces milk that has been completely sterilized, enabling it to have a longer shelf life (e.g., boxed milk shelved at room temperature).

The idea behind pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized milk is to destroy any potentially harmful pathogens in milk; however, many of the beneficial bacteria and enzymes present in raw milk are also destroyed.

Non-homogenized milk refers to milk with an uneven consistency — the fat has naturally separated from the "body" of the milk, forming a layer of cream that collects at the top.

Homogenized milk, on the other hand, has a rich, white color and smooth texture — the end result of an emulsification process called homogenization. At the turn of the 20th century, Frenchman and inventor Auguste Gaulin introduced a homogenizing machine, which could break up milk’s large fat globules into smaller, uniformed sizes that resisted separation and rising (i.e., no cream top). The modern homogenization process involves pushing milk through a fine filter at very high pressure, reducing the size of the fat globules so significantly that they are evenly dispersed throughout the milk. Homogenization usually follows pasteurization.

Purported risks

The CDC and FDA are adamant about the dangers of drinking raw milk. The CDC reports that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness, and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products. Dangerous bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria can lurk in raw milk.

Drinking contaminated raw milk does have serious health consequences. Potentially harmful bacteria in raw milk can be especially detrimental to people with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, young children and the elderly.

Chris Kresser — a licensed acupuncturist, functional medicine practitioner and a health and wellness blogger — frames the risk of drinking raw milk in a larger context, of relative incidence of foodborne illness.

For example, compare the risk of becoming ill from drinking raw milk (one in 94,000) to shellfish and oysters, where:

  • You have a one in 66,000 chance of becoming ill from eating shellfish.
  • You have a one in 88,000 chance of actually dying from eating raw oysters.

Benefits of raw milk

In comparison to pasteurized homogenized milk, raw milk is frequently praised for having a superior flavor and texture. Anecdotal accounts and personal testimonials also suggest that those who are lactose intolerant have no problem digesting raw milk.

Devotees are convinced that raw milk is a whole food that is nutritionally superior to conventional milk. Studies suggest that they may have a point.

  • More C.L.A. Cows that eat mostly grass (some may receive supplemental grains in the winter) produce higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (C.L.A.) and fatty acids in their milk. Research findings suggest that the benefits of C.L.A. — a naturally occurring "good" trans-fatty acid — may include: weight loss (and a decrease in abdominal fat); an improved immune system (especially for asthma sufferers); the ability to lower high cholesterol and high triglycerides; a reduction of cancerous tumors; decreased inflammation; and less insulin resistance. One study that analyzed C.L.A. content in cows fed different diets found that cows grazing on pasture — without any supplemental feed — had 500 percent more conjugated linoleic acid in their milk fat than cows fed typical dairy diets that included grain and corn.
  • Live enzymes. Considered a "live" food, raw milk contains many active, beneficial enzymes, including lactase, which helps break down lactose in milk, making it easier to digest. Lactase is not present in pasteurized milk, which is why some people can think that they're "lactose intolerant."
  • Beneficial bacteria. Raw milk is a rich source of beneficial bacteria. Eating foods, such as raw dairy products and lacto-fermented foods (like sauerkraut), can help optimize the levels of beneficial bacteria in your gut, important for a healthy immune system.
  • Vitamins. The butterfat in grass-fed raw milk is an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins A, K2 and E and an unexpected source of vitamin C. According to the CDC’s FAQ sheet, the heating process of pasteurization not only deactivates some enzymes in raw milk, it also decreases vitamin C levels.
  • Improved immune health. Those who drink raw milk often cite improved immune health and reduced allergies. A cross-sectional study of nearly 15,000 children between the ages of 5 and 13 in five European countries suggests that consuming raw "farm milk" during childhood may offer protection against asthma and allergies.

Bies shares how her family has benefited from drinking raw milk: "We don’t get as sick in the winter — less colds and flu. My daughter's seasonal allergies have improved. Raw milk has also helped stabilize my kids' blood sugar — and their moods. They have fewer meltdowns!!"

How to buy raw milk safely

If you are going to buy raw milk, be sure to identify a good, clean source. Take the time to ask the farmer a lot of questions. Check out this excellent Raw Milk Consumer Guide by Dr. Amanda Rose, Ph.D., with tips on "How to Choose Your Raw Dairy Farmer" and "Questions to Ask and Red Flags."

More on health

The health benefits of drinking milk
Health benefits of the unrecognized vitamin K2
The skinny on saturated fats

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