I decided to blog on the subject of raw milk because a friend asked my opinion about it after buying a bottle at our local farmer’s market. He commented on how delicious tasting the milk was, and wondered if he should make the switch from pasteurized to raw.
I am not a medical practitioner nor a registered licensed dietician or nutritionist, so the following is just the opinion of a cautious but health-conscious mother.
I do not drink raw milk nor do I serve it to my children. That said, I did regularly drink raw milk from a neighbor’s farm while growing up, and never experienced any health problems from it. I might add that our neighbor’s farm was not a particularly clean operation. We would plunk down the metal pail under the goat, milk her and take the pail to the house where the contents were poured into a glass jar and stuck in the refrigerator for later consumption. (There was definitely no hand washing or sterilization happening here.)
Now, I occasionally buy cheese made from raw milk for my personal consumption, but the majority of the time, I purposefully choose products made from pasteurized milk. My reasoning is that the alleged dangers of raw milk are simply too compelling—a little of the “better safe than sorry” philosophy.
While many websites exist extolling the virtues of raw milk, (e.g., cavity fighter, autism curer, antiviral, antimicrobial, etc.) the claims appear to be anecdotal with the exception of allergies. Studies have shown that drinking raw milk may result in fewer symptoms of hay fever and asthma. (June 2006 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, May 2007 Clinical and Experimental Allergy). However, despite these potential health benefits, all medical institutions warn that raw milk can harbor pathogens, the most common being E. coli, listeria and salmonella. The bacteria can be especially dangerous for infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV or AIDS. For example, there have been cases in which children who had E. coli went on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious condition affecting the kidneys.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 1998 through 2008, raw milk or raw-milk products were implicated in 86 outbreaks in the US, resulting in more than 1,600 cases of illness, 191 hospitalizations and 2 deaths.
Where the problem lies is in the relativity of those numbers. The CDC does not share the overall number of foodborne illness outbreaks in which other foods, spinach or strawberries, for example, were implicated. Many foods can carry pathogens, and numbers are only numbers unless we can make them relative.
Cost is another consideration in the raw milk debate. My regular grocery store used to sell a quart of raw milk for $9.00. They have since pulled it from their shelves over liability concerns.
It is true that pasteurization (heating milk to 161 degrees F for about 20 seconds) does destroy some of the vitamins found in milk as well as many enzymes. Raw milk advocates claim these enzymes are what allow people to easily digest raw milk, and that many people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate raw milk. This seems logical enough, but since my children both love and drink regular milk, lactose intolerance has not been a concern for us.
My sister drinks only raw milk, as does her 7-year-old child. She buys it from a local farmer whose cows are grass-fed. She is convinced the benefits far outweigh the risks. And I imagine once you start drinking raw milk from grass-fed cows—which tastes the way milk should taste—it must be pretty hard to switch back to sterilized (i.e., pasteurized) milk.
Lastly, a word about homogenization because people often confuse it with pasteurization. Homogenized milk has been run through yet another process, which breaks down the fat molecules so your milk remains an even consistency. Because I want only the minimum amount of processing, I buy pasteurized—flash pasteurized, but not homogenized, milk. I don’t mind the extra step of having to scoop a little cream off the top and/or give my bottle a good shake before pouring.
So unfortunately, I cannot and should not make a recommendation as to whether my friend or anyone should drink raw milk. At least it gives us some food—or milk, as the case may be—for thought.
A drink to your health!