Raw milk

So, last night I went to a “cooking class” held by a pair of women who feel “called” to provide information on eating healthfully as a “ministry” – but have also started a small business around their classes. The class showed us how to make pizza using home-milled flour and mozzarella cheese made using raw milk. They discussed the benefits of using truly minimally processed foods including sugar alternatives, home-milled flours and eating locally. The pizza was good, the desserts tasty, the conversation interesting.

There was one bit of their spiel that bugged me (ok – more than one thing bugged me, but this is what I’m going to talk about today): they are strong proponents of replacing pasteurized, homogenized milk with “raw” milk. Their argument: raw milk is “alive” with beneficial organisms that support our own digestion and immune system; that raw milk is considered medicine, useful for treating anything from acne to cancer; and is a complete food – whole, raw milk is all you need to sustain life. Pasteurizing destroys nutrients, enzymes and proteins and generally makes processed milk a vastly inferior product. Like processed flours, pasteurization only benefits the food industry, and isn’t necessary.

Uh-huh. Right.

For full disclosure, I’m farm-bred. My immediate family did not depend on livestock for a living, but my grandfather raised beef cattle. I raised a dairy calf for 4-H, and took care of occasional orphans from Grandad’s herd. I have visited more than one dairy, and my grandmother had a backyard milk cow, which provided milk for half the neighborhood. I loved Grandma’s milk. Every week, she’d give us a big gallon jar filled with really wonderful milk. Or should I say that 3/4 of the jar contained milk. The other 1/4 of the jar was cream, yellow and thick. Mmm, cream. I still have a thing for cream. But she always pasteurized the milk.

Barnyards are not clean places. Cows are nasty, dirty critters. They prefer to hang around in specific places, and their sharp hooves churn up the ground at their hang-outs. They crap indiscriminately, and have no problem with lying in their own feces. Even if they have plenty of room to lie elsewhere. When they lie down, their udders are on the ground. Picture the barn as I knew it: surrounded by a moat of shitty mud, with the cow lying in the middle of it, calmly chewing her cud. She could’ve been lying 20 feet away, in the clean grass, but no. Knowing what I know of cows, the idea of drinking straight from the teat is more than a little icky. Even when it’s washed off. Because really, all it takes is a flick of a filthy tail, or the stomp of a muddy hoof and it’s dirty again.

But do I need to change that picture? Do these two women know something I don’t?

Is raw milk more nutritious than pasteurized? It doesn’t look that way to me. I made a brief search with Google Scholar using the phrases “raw milk nutrition” and “unpasteurized milk nutrition.” I came across a 1953 article in the Journal of Nutrition where the researcher fed different dogs different diets of milk that had undergone different processes.  Some dogs were fed raw milk, some evaporated milk, etc. The animals’ urine and feces were tested, and their weight was monitored to determine the animal’s health. The researcher found that “autoclaving whole raw milk at 10 or 15 pounds’ pressure for 15 or 30 minutes has no detrimental effect on the protein as measured by digestibility, biological value or nutritive index.”

Other articles weren’t so conclusive. There was at least one article that showed that babies fed on pasteurized human breast milk gained weight slower than those on raw. Another article showed that pasteurization inactivates glutathione peroxidase activity. Whatever that is. Others showed that differing pasteurization methods could alter the nutrition of milk somewhat, or that there is a possibility that drinking raw milk can alleviate allergies.

Ok, without an exhaustive search, I’m getting the impression that if pasteurization diminishes the nutrition of cow’s milk, it’s a modest change that probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference. It’s still a very nutritious food.

Now, let’s say that I’m determined to wring every bit of nutrition out of my milk. Is raw milk safe? Would any benefits I may gain by drinking raw milk be undermined by the risk of milk-borne disease?

This article, from the journal Clinical and Infectious Diseases points out that before pasteurization, over 25% of all disease outbreaks linked to contaminated food and drink were from milk-borne pathogens. Now, it’s less than 1% – and it seems that those milk-borne outbreaks were almost always from people drinking raw milk. The article confirms my suspicion that, even with modern hygiene procedures, it is darn near impossible to eliminate bacteria from the milking and milk handling process, and that to drink raw milk is to take the risk that you are exposing yourself to a pathogen.

Is the risk of exposure worth the potential (minor) health benefits? No way. My husband is of the opinion that folks preaching the raw milk gospel are very similar to those who have autism and vaccines linked in their heads: they are suspicious of the food industry and government regulations (ok – rightfully so), and no amount of scientific proof to the contrary will change their minds. Questioning industry and regulations is a good thing, but to ignore more than one source of scientific evidence because your mind is made up is not.

That all said, I did have a taste of the raw milk last night. It was delicious – sweet and creamy. Better than that skim crap we have in the fridge. But I suspect the difference was not due to it’s raw nature, but to the fact that it was fresh (less than a week old), from grass-fed Jerseys, and was whole. Almost exactly like the milk I used to get from Grandma. I wouldn’t mind getting milk just like it – if it were pasteurized.


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