Whenever the topic of raw milk arises in our house (which happens more often than you might expect) my boyfriend is invariably inclined to relate the story of how his own family came to join the raw milk movement. It began when his mother took his younger sister to a local pediatrician to treat whooping cough.
To her surprise, the doctor did not immediately whip out his prescription pad and start scribbling, but instead asked if her family drank milk. When she answered yes, he proceeded to inquire as to whether it was raw milk. To this she answered no, and was promptly sent away without any prescription, but instead with this piece of wisdom: if you’re not drinking raw milk, then that’s likely why you’re sick; if you are drinking raw milk, and you still get sick, then something is wrong with you.
Shortly thereafter, the entire family made the switch to farm fresh raw milk, delivered by a local dairy. For the three years that they drank it, there was not a single instance of illness in the house. Within months of their switching back to ordinary milk, they all fell ill.
This story takes place in southern New Hampshire, where dairy farms are not particularly difficult to come by and where raw milk sales are legally and socially accepted. Unfortunately, this is not the case throughout the country. Currently, raw milk sales are illegal in eleven of the fifty states, and in four others it is only legally sold as pet food. Not only that, but public opinion of raw milk is vastly divided between those who maintain that raw milk is extremely dangerous, and who would certainly avoid it even if it were as readily available as pasteurized milk, and those who perceive it as a veritable miracle food, not only so perfectly nutritious that one could survive on a diet of raw milk alone, but capable of curing an enormous range of afflictions. Individuals belonging to the second camp frequently blame the US government and “Big Milk” for misleading the public by grossly exaggerating the risks of drinking raw milk and outright denying its advantages over pasteurized milk.
While the notion that the US government would target something as apparently politically insignificant as raw milk for any purpose other than the promotion of public health and safety may seem absurd, the existence of enormous disparities between the supposed scientific bases on which the two opposing parties build their arguments does raise some serious concerns about scientific integrity on both sides. Since the majority of consumers to whom this information is relevant are not chemists or physicians, it can be very difficult for us to judge for ourselves what information is accurate and what is false. To add to the confusion, scientific data is frequently found embedded deep within shamelessly one-sided propaganda, either denouncing raw milk as a public health hazard or proclaiming it to be the most wholesome and healthful food on the planet. There is precious little in the way of objectively presented research. Thus, it ultimately left up to the consumers, ill-equipped as we are, to pick out the truths from the rhetoric, and assemble them as best we can into an accurate analysis of the comparative health benefits and risks of drinking raw milk.
Health Benefits of Raw Milk
To begin with, let’s examine the primary argument put forth in favor of raw milk: that it is healthier than pasteurized milk. So healthy, in fact, that throughout history doctors have used it in the treatment of a wide range of illnesses, including asthma, arthritis, psoriasis, cardiovascular disease, tumors and even multiple sclerosis. The explanations for how raw milk is effective against such a wide range of disorders are often disappointingly vague, but they tend rest on the simple fact that raw milk is an extremely nutrient-rich food, and thus provides the body with everything it needs to not only maintain its health, but to actually heal itself when necessary.
Those in favor of raw milk point out that milk straight from the cow is practically a perfect food. It contains all eight essential amino acids; an excellent blend of carbohydrates and fats; over sixty enzymes, that assist in a wide variety of metabolic functions; and the full array of vitamins and minerals. Along with these nutrients, raw milk also contains beneficial bacteria that can further aid in digestion and ward off infections.
The main problem with pasteurization is that it diminishes these natural health benefits of milk. Pasteurized milk, raw milk enthusiasts claim, contains significantly fewer nutrients and no beneficial bacteria. According to those in favor of raw milk, there are two ways in which pasteurization impacts the nutritional content of milk: it does so directly by destroying or altering nutrients in the process of heating the milk up; and it does so indirectly by allowing milk to be produced in less than ideal situations. The first problem stems from a fairly well understood fact that heat has the ability to alter substances at a molecular level. Since pasteurization is designed to kill bacteria, it is no surprise that the beneficial bacteria in raw milk are killed just as thoroughly as the dangerous ones. Moreover, many insist that a substantial amount of the nutrients in milk are altered to such an extent that they can no longer perform their intended functions in the body. In his 2001 Report in Favor of Raw Milk, Dr. Aajonous Vonderplanitz claims that less than ten percent of the enzymes available in raw milk are still intact after pasteurization. Similarly, a significant portion of vitamins and minerals are destroyed, along with certain fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
As to the second problem, many people today are aware of the concept of factory farms–farms on which animals are pumped full of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs to enable farmers to reap the highest possible profit without having to concern themselves with matters of nutrition or cleanliness, let alone quality of life. Just as these practices have raised concerns about the quality of meat produced by such farms, they have also raised concerns about the quality of milk. Since pasteurization kills off any harmful bacteria in milk, there is less need for farmers to concern themselves with the cleanliness of their dairy operations, nor do they have to concern themselves with what they feed their cows. While feeding dairy cows grass is considered of the utmost importance to the production of raw milk, since only grass-fed cows produce the necessary antimicrobial enzymes that keep their milk safe, pasteurization allows conventional dairies to bypass this concern. This, in turn, impacts the overall nutritional value of the milk….”