Raw Milk
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | May 27, 2008

Natural foods continue to grow in popularity, in part because people believe that minimally processed foods are better for them and their families but also due to growing concern about the ecological impact of the way we grow and process our foods. Drinking raw milk is a trend that seems to be growing, as evidenced by articles in major magazines such as Time (1). Let’s look at this issue up close. Is raw milk better than pasteurized milk? Are there any safety concerns that need to be considered? Is it even legal to buy raw milk?

Raw Milk
The difference between raw and pasteurized milk is heat. Pasteurization requires that raw milk be brought to 161 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees centigrade) for 15 seconds (2). This kills the organisms such as bacteria that grow rapidly in milk. In the process, the heating also kills beneficial bacteria such as probiotics. Manufacturers have begun to add probiotics such as acidophilus to yogurt and other dairy products to replace those lost in pasteurization.

According to raw milk advocates, that’s not all the damage pasteurization causes. Enzymes are destroyed, vitamins are lost, and even the nature of the proteins change. There’s little question that heating will modify the raw milk, just as it modifies meat, vegetables, and fruit.

But what are the benefits of drinking raw milk? Proponents of raw milk, such as The Weston A. Price Foundation, say that drinking it will improve your immune system, make your bones stronger, reduce digestive issues, and more. The problem is that there’s little science to support the beneficial effects of raw milk. No one has researched a comparison of the health benefits between raw milk and pasteurized milk, so there’s no way to know if raw milk really has benefits--all we have are the testimonials of people who drink raw milk, and we’ve all seen examples of the unreliability of testimonials.

The proponents of raw milk put more emphasis on the problems of drinking pasteurized milk. Allergies, heart disease, osteoporosis, digestive issues, and more are just some of the hazards they associate with pasteurized milk. The problem again is the lack of any research to support the position other than case studies and testimonials.

Safety
The real issue with raw versus pasteurized milk is safety. Simply stated, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that raw milk can be hazardous to your health due to the potential for pathogens; the proponents say it’s safer than pasteurized milk. The FDA has done presentations throughout the country on the potential for disease in raw milk as well as on the myths of the benefits (3). The Weston A. Price Foundation has refuted the FDA report point by point (4). I’ve read both presentations, and I examined the research cited by the raw milk advocates in detail.

The arguments put forth by The Weston A. Price Foundation didn’t address directly the issue of food safety when it comes to raw milk; they continually pointed out the flaws in methodology in the research the FDA cited showing the hazards of raw milk. They also pointed out the number of outbreaks of bacterial infection with pasteurized milk. But stating that bacteria can be present in pasteurized milk and that outbreaks occur ignores the issue of the safety of raw milk.

Raw milk, which can be sold in only 28 states, may be safe in the quantities that are currently being sold--less than 1% of the milk consumed. A logical assumption is that only the farmers most dedicated to natural foods are producing raw milk for that niche market.

But if selling raw milk and cheese becomes more commonplace, the potential for bacterial contamination could increase exponentially. Why? When profits become higher in the sale of raw milk, farmers that are primarily interested in the profit would be tempted to enter the market and to cut corners. Those profits may also attract farmers who don’t know how to raise the cows properly or how to manage farms where milking conditions are less than ideal. If you doubt that profit is a motive, consider the number of farmers throughout the world who have turned to raising corn for fuel instead of food crops because of the profitability of ethanol production.

Quality control is easier to manage when the scale is small. What the proponents of raw milk don’t acknowledge is that for the enormous quantity of pasteurized milk sold every day, the number of outbreaks of any type is virtually zero. All they’ve illustrated is that mistakes are possible with pasteurized milk. But they haven’t proven that raw milk is safe, let alone safer than pasteurized milk.

Bottom Line
Raw milk may indeed have benefits that exceed the benefits of drinking pasteurized milk, but to date there’s no research to support it. If you want to drink raw milk, be sure you know the farm where you’re buying it because the potential for contamination is greater than for pasteurized milk. If you drink raw milk and you don’t know the source, you roll the dice with your health and hope for the best. A better solution might be to drink pasteurized milk and take a probiotics supplement--that way you’re getting the best of both worlds.

References:
  1. Alice Park. Raw Milk Straight from the Cow. Time. May 1, 2008.

  2. Brock, C and Partridge J. Furthering Families: Milk pasteurization Guarding against disease. Michigan State University Extension. Family and Consumer Sciences. 2/13/2007.

  3. Sheehan, JF. On The Safety of Raw Milk (with a word about pasteurization). FDA CFSAN/Office of Plant and Dairy Foods. May 12, 2005.

  4. The Weston A. Price Foundation. Response to the FDA: A Point-by-Point Rebuttal to the Anti-Raw Milk PowerPoint Presentation. November, 2007.
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