Todd Caldecott takes a refreshing look at the whole raw milk issue (from his blog on UrbanDiner.ca):
Ok, a share of hands please. How many of you have ever suckled a baby? Maybe a few of you…? Ok then, how many of you were breastfed?
In a place I call Happy Fantasy Boob Land, I imagine that 100% of you got breast-fed. But, like me, I know for a fact that a lot of you didn’t, and that maybe even some of you haven’t seen a baby breast feeding either. But whatever boob hang-ups we all have, I think we can all agree that breast is best. Years of research and public campaigning have finally shifted the preposterous albeit prosperous medical opinion that we could improve upon nature by synthesizing a substitute. Yes, almost every doctor will tell you that boobs are pretty great. And not only is breast-feeding good for you, it’s a quite a handy thing too. Here we have a whining crying screaming baby going on and On AND ON and all you need to do is stick a boob in it to shut it up. It’s a miracle. You don’t even need to wash the boob before using it. No sterilizing bottles and nipples and discarding plastic bags. It’s the ultimate in convenience, and 100% green. Breast milk is so totally hip.
But what if I told you that breast milk was a health hazard? What if I told you that your baby’s milk needed to be packed into huge vats and blended with other mother’s milk and taken to a factory to be industrially processed? First we’d skim off the fat and then add butter fat back to the milk to achieve the desired percentage of fat (e.g. 1%, 2%, 3% etc). After this we’d pasteurize the whole lot of it, and then run it through a high pressure nozzle upwards of 17,000 kPa in a process called homogenization, changing the physiochemical properties of the milk, turning it into a very different substance. Then we’d pack it up in cardboard boxes lined with polyethylene or high density polyethylene (HDPE) containers, and about a week after it had been expressed, you could finally give it to your baby. Does this make any sense to you?
And yet this is what modern milk has become. The very same substance that comes from a mother’s breast is the same thing that comes from a cow or any other mammal. Sure, the ratio of fats, proteins and sugars are different depending on the animal, but milk is milk, and real milk is always raw. Let’s make no mistake here. Any type of milk that is no longer raw cannot be said to be milk. In fact milk that is no longer raw is usually yogurt, a process that more or less happens on its own. But milk isn’t yogurt. And neither is skim, 2% or homo.
What ‘milk’ has become in modern society is an artifact of milk, a replica of the farm fresh product that the marketing only alludes to. But it’s about as close to real milk as an Egg McMuffin is to a real breakfast. And because it’s not milk, but another product that the body doesn’t recognize as food, it is one of the most allergenic and problematic foods in today’s diet. Not just me but legions of health practitioners including herbalists, naturopaths and medical doctors will all tell you that avoiding milk will improve your health. By avoiding milk health problems seem to resolve out of thin air – chronic mucus and sinus issues, asthma, joint pain, skin rashes and even anxiety and depression – all these and more just seem to get better. It is so common to hear that milk causes health issues that I’ve heard comedians make jokes about it. It’s become a cultural meme, despite all the marketing that “milk does the body good”. It seems that milk is bad for you after all. But let’s be perfectly clear. What we are referring to here isn’t really milk.
According to Ayurveda, milk is best consumed fresh and warm, right out of the milk bucket. Taken in this way, milk is among the most nourishing of foods, helping to overcome deficiency states, weight loss and a lack of vitality. In ancient India all traditional hospitals had a couple cows on the grounds, providing fresh raw milk and other milk products for the patients. But regardless of its virtues, raw milk doesn’t stay that way forever. As I indicated earlier, if the milk is brought inside, filtered and put into a jar, within a 24 hour period it usually turns to yogurt, or what they call “dahi” in India. This is a natural function of the lactic acid bacteria that are pretty much everywhere in our environment. And thank goodness, because if it wasn’t for them, other putrefying bacteria would soon turn that fresh milk into something quite nasty and rather toxic. Although still a nutritive substance, due to its sour taste yogurt is said to be different than milk in its properties and effects. For one thing, fresh raw milk is a mild laxative, but fresh yogurt is slightly constipating, which is why it’s good for traveler’s diarrhea. Milk is a little heavy and hard to digest, whereas yogurt is easier to digest. Milk is cooling and antiinflammatory, but yogurt is heat producing, and can promote rashes and other skin issues. I talk about these and other issues on my website.
By the time the milk is turning into yogurt the cream has risen to the top. The farmer scoops this soured cream off the yogurt and sets it aside, and then after a few days of accumulating it, the sour cream is churned to produce butter and buttermilk. This type of real cultured butter which is hard to find nowadays is stated in Ayurveda to have nourishing and aphrodisiac properties, and then when clarified into ghee, turns into a heat-stable cooking fat that potentiates the medicinal properties of the herbs it’s mixed with. And what’s left over from churning butter is real buttermilk, a thin sour liquid with very little fat. In Ayurveda buttermilk is an excellent remedy for diarrhea and dysentery when prepared with rice and herbs such as curry leaf, hing, cumin and salt. But what exactly you can do with that thick fatty glop in the grocery store figuratively called “buttermilk” I have no idea.
I provide this basic run down of traditional dairy processing to provide some context. And hopefully the context should be clear enough: for the vast majority of the time we have been consuming milk as a species, we have observed a fairly basic set of farming practices, processing methods and consumption patterns. The problem is that none of us are living on the farm anymore. Most of us don’t even live close enough to a farmer to get it locally. We hear that we need milk, that it’s replete with calcium that we supposedly need to prevent osteoporosis, and so we are compelled to buy it.
When people began to migrate into the cities to find work, still hankering for those farm fresh foods, local dairies were only too happy to oblige. Funded by growing demand, these home-run dairies quickly became businesses supplying a commodity, and dairy production went from simple family run operations to dairy mega corps in a single generation. But there were some major hiccups in the beginning, especially before we had adequate refrigeration, before we had really figured out the level of hygiene that needs to be followed when you operate on such a level. Very often the product would curdle or otherwise spoil from contamination somewhere in chain of production. Enter Louis Pasteur and his concept of pasteurization.
Before pasteurization, there were natural limits upon how big a dairy operation could get, but Mr. Pasteur’s process allowed the dairy farm to become a huge operation and still maintain a “reliable” product. Remember how raw milk becomes yogurt due to the ubiquitous presence of lactic acid bacteria? Well, pasteurization is an effective method to kill these bacteria and prevent lactic acid fermentation. It allows for the continued appearance and taste of milk weeks after it has been expressed, but in fact pasteurization doesn’t kill all the bacteria. In particular, pasteurization leaves some degree of putrefying bacteria more or less intact, which is why after a week or so your milk smells like sweaty biker armpits instead of yogurt. The gross thing is that you have been drinking it it this whole time, and it’s only when it finally gets too gross that you toss it out.
I guess it goes without saying, but real milk comes from real cows. Fortunately in Canada we have laws that prohibit the use of hormones like recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) to boost milk production, but in the US there are no such restrictions, as well as no specific laws that require labeling this fact. Antibiotics, herbicide and pesticide residues and even the presence of heavy metals such as cadmium are also worrisome components of commercial milk production. Real cows of course spend their time walking in the fields eating grass, herbs and lots of bugs in the process, and feeding on silage and hay over the winter months. Real cows are cared for and loved and respected as the true mothers that they are, their teats lovingly pulled by farmers whose joy it is to receive their milky abundance. Some might think this a pastoral fantasy, but the horror show of the modern dairy cow is very real.
It should be clear by now that the only way to get milk, real milk, is to get it from real dairy farmers that have relatively small operations. On this level, dairy farming is a small home-based business with a small herd that produces a relatively small volume of milk that can be distributed to the community following simple methods of hygiene. It’s not that complicated, but for some reason it gets very complicated for government bureaucrats. Just ask Alice Jongerden of Home on the Range cowshare farm in Chilliwack B.C. For the past several years, Ms. Jongerden and her family have been providing fresh raw milk to local people who want it. It’s a very small family-run operation, and if you passed it on the highway it would fly by in a blip. People who want real milk invest in their cow-share program, and owning a share of the cow entitles them to receive some of its milk. You can even go out there and say hi to your cow, scratch her neck and feed her some grass. But according to Fraser Health, Alice Jongerden is committing a crime. For providing real milk in a way that any real farmer would feel comfortable with it, Home on the Range is under court order to suspend its operations. And Alice isn’t the only one. Although having recently won his case in court, Ontario dairy farmer Michael Schmidt is preparing to meet the government’s appeal, and finally strike down the law against real people drinking real milk. And a similar movement is afoot in the US, where laws depending on the state can be just as draconian as they are in Canada. Take a look at this recent news report on a police raid on an organic grocery store in California.
In the interest of fairness however, I don’t want to come across completely one-sided. I understand that the regulatory agencies are mostly just trying to save their butts and protect the public interest. I will suspend the thought that their actions may just be the result of pressure from the milk industry and milk marketing boards, who would hate to see consumers start to choose real milk instead of the industrial product. But I too, have some concerns about milk. For one thing, it’s clearly not a food for everyone, and even raw milk will give some people problems with their health. And I am also concerned about storing raw milk under refrigeration for an extended period of time, with people drinking it cold right out of the fridge. Research shows that under refrigeration the lactic acid bacteria don’t out-compete other cold-insensitive bacteria, including potentially pathogenic organisms. Remember what I said about real milk being fresh, straight from the cow? Yes, raw milk is a natural product, but the extended preservation of raw milk under refrigeration is not. As such, I recommend that people who buy raw milk introduce a culture to ferment it, such as a little yogurt culture or kefir granules, or if it’s more than 2 days old, warm the raw milk up to 100C before consuming it. Drinking cold milk right out the fridge is a 20th century phenomena, and in my experience, gives rise to a number of health issues including weak digestion, chronic mucus congestion and depressed immunity. According to Ayurveda, boiled milk prepared with herbs and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and clove helps to improve the digestibility of the milk, and this is a practice that has been followed in India for thousands of years.
In the same way that I recommend we all buy our meat from local producers, so too should we get our milk from local dairies. I am confident that if health boards limited the herd size and operations for raw milk dairies, that a high quality and safe product could be easily supplied. Just ask the farmers – they know how to do it already. Concerns over spoilage and infection would be easily allayed. And then we would see the rise of a hundred local dairy farms, maybe even some in the city as they do out at the UBC farm. Local farms and local milk for local people. The real thing.
About the author (Todd Caldecott)