[Image Credit: jacqueline]
When I was little my mom would sometimes get raw goat’s milk from some dairy farmers she knew. She loved that milk, loved the taste. My uncle and her would often reminisce together about their childhood years, the whole, fresh milk and the “koulouraki” (type of Greek biscuit) and “tsoureki” (type of sweet Greek bread) they’d eat along with it.
But we wouldn’t just drink it raw. She’d get the milk home, boil it, and ta-dah! It was ready to be served. I remember we’d have to drink it fast, in a day or two, to make sure it wouldn’t go bad.
All this sounds good, even nostalgic, however here’s the kicker. Raw milk can get you sick – and the same is true for raw cheese. Not just “diarrhea sick.” You can actually die. People have died from raw milk. The USA has even made it illegal to sell in some states. Pasteurization actually became mainstream in the first place just because raw milk was responsible for thousands of deaths.
Even today, both raw milk and raw cheese are not safe. Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk dairy in the USA, has a history of product recalls. In 2012 California found Campylobacter bacteria in samples of the dairy’s raw cream and butter. In the past its products were found with the delightful E. Coli, when 5 children had gotten sick. A child in Australia recently died because of raw milk.
What’s strange is that even though milk sales are dropping, raw milk sales are increasing! Despite the deaths and the poisoning cases, raw milk proponents argue that raw milk:
- Has higher nutritional value than pasteurized milk (not really)
- Tastes better (subjective)
- Is easier to digest (disproven)
Because this is a matter of life and death, not just food poisoning, I had to investigate and find out for myself what was really going on.
The Truth About Raw Milk
First what is raw milk? According to the FDA:
Raw milk is milk from cows, sheep, or goats that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria. This raw, unpasteurized milk can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which are responsible for causing numerous foodborne illnesses.
Okay, so raw milk is unpasteurized milk. So…
What is pasteurization?
Pasteurization is a process of heating a liquid to below the boiling point to destroy microorganisms.
Microorganisms used to kill thousands of people – and mostly children – every year.
In May 13, 1858 (that’s exactly 157 years ago!), the New York Times published an article called “How We Poison Our Children.” The article blamed milk for 8,000 infant deaths in New York. The raw milk was coming from “swill dairies,” stables built next to distilleries and fed left-over macerated grain from whiskey production.
A few years later, Louis Pasteur invented “pasteurization” (named after him) to help kill the harmful bacteria without destroying the nutrients in the milk.
Pasteurization started becoming more and more widespread, as it protected against the problems of unclean stables, sloppy milking and transportation practices (read about it on the New York Times Pasteurization article from 1907).
So what temperature is actually used for the pasteurization of milk? Quoting Milkfacts:
Initial pasteurization conditions, known as flash pasteurization, were to heat the milk to 155 to 178°F (68.3 to 81°C) for an instant followed by cooling. Pasteurization conditions were adjusted to 143°F (61.7°C) for 30 minutes or 160°F (71.1°C) for 15 seconds to inactivate Mycobacterium bovis, the organism responsible for tuberculosis. However, in 1957 these conditions were shown to be inadequate for the inactivation of Coxiella burnetii which causes Q fever in humans (Enright et al., 1957). New pasteurization conditions of 145°F (62.8°C) for 30 minutes for a batch process, or 161°F (71.7°C) for 15 sec for a continuous process, were adopted in order to inactivate Coxiella burnetii, and these conditions are still in use today.
There’s also ultra-high temperature processing (UHT), commonly used with organic milk. According to the European Food Information Council, “the UHT process ensures total microbial and enzyme inactivation, because the milk is heated up to 150 °C for 5 seconds.” For differences between low-temperature and higher-temperature pasteurization check this article (in short, any nutrient losses are negligible but higher temperature is safer).
But how does milk get contaminated?
Milk is the perfect place for bacteria to thrive. But how would they find their way in?
- Cow feces
- Infection of the cow’s udder (mastitis) and other bacteria that live on cows’ skin
- Cow diseases (e.g., bovine tuberculosis)
- Environment (e.g., feces, dirt, processing equipment)
- Insects, rodents, and other animal vectors
- Humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots
Pasteurization does kill the bacteria that make people sick. Now truth be told, even pasteurized milk can get infected if humans manage to contaminate it after the pasteurization process. But this would be extremely rare.
Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk: Is there a difference in nutritional value?
You’d think that since pasteurized milk is processed, then its nutritional value is diminished compared to the “real deal.” Yet that not the case here. Pasteurization is different from sterilization. Sterilization would literally kill everything, yet the food would also be destroyed.
Pasteurization on the other hand kills the dangerous bacteria, without destroying milk. In particular:
Protein, fat, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic avid, vitamins A, E, B6, and minerals (calcium, phosphorus, potassium) are the same.
B12 suffers a small loss – but you still get a significant amount.
Greatest effect is on Vitamin C that can be severely impacted, but milk is not a significant source of vitamin C anyway.
Note that pasteurized milk is generally fortified with Vitamin D. You won’t find this extra level of Vitamin D in raw milk (and yes, milk is not a source for vitamin D).
I really liked the chart on Organic Valley’s website for a direct comparison between raw and pasteurized milk’s vitamin value.
But what about the good bacteria?
Probiotic bacteria are good bacteria. Indeed raw milk and raw cheese have the good bacteria, but they also have the bad. So I’ll quote the CDC:
If you think that certain types of bacteria may be beneficial to your health consider getting them from foods that don’t involve such a high risk. For example, so-called probiotic bacteria are sometimes added to pasteurized fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir.
What about the enzymes?
Again, let’s hear it from the CDC:
While it’s true that the heating process of pasteurization does inactivate some enzymes in milk, the enzymes in raw animal milk are not thought to be important in human health.
And what’s the deal with homogenization?
We use homogenization so that the milk does not develop a thick layer on top. This way we don’t have to shake the milk every time before drinking it. Here’s how it works, as explained by Brian Dunning:
Homogenization is a simple process. The first thing that’s done is to mix together milk from different dairies, making it more consistent overall and day to day. The second part is making it consistent throughout. Raw milk separates into a light, fatty layer on top, and a heavier layer on the bottom. Homogenization turns it into an emulsion, in which the fat particles are tiny and evenly distributed throughout the liquid in such a way that they won’t separate like raw milk. This is just a matter of forcing it through a fine strain which breaks up the fat chunks into tiny specks. Presto, a homogenous product.
Homogenization is safe and arguments about it being linked to heart disease have been long discredited (i.e., matter settled since the 1980s!).
Other arguments against homogenization, like vitamin D absorption and decreased digestibility have also been discredited.
Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk: Is there a difference in taste?
I’ve only tried goat’s raw milk. I hate goat milk, raw or pasteurized. Also, it’s been years since I drank raw milk, so I cannot really have an opinion on the matter.
But even if I did, who cares? Taste is a subjective matter. For example, I hate goat cheese. Add little pieces of it in my salad, and if I do make myself eat it, I will have “disgust” written all over my face. Others love it.
So that’s up to each one of you.
Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk: Which one is easier to digest?
A 2014 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine the authors conclude: “Raw milk failed to reduce lactose malabsorption or lactose intolerance symptoms compared with pasteurized milk among adults positive for lactose malabsorption. These results do not support widespread anecdotal claims that raw milk reduces the symptoms of lactose intolerance.”
From Stanford Med’s page:
“When I heard that claim it didn’t make sense to me because, regardless of the bacteria, raw milk and pasteurized milk have the same amount of lactose in them,” Gardner said. “But I liked the idea of taking this on since it seemed like a relatively straightforward and answerable question because the symptoms of lactose-intolerance are immediate. If drinking milk makes you uncomfortable, you will know within two hours. You either have cramps and diarrhea or you don’t.”
The Dangers of Raw Milk
According to a Harvard analysis from 2006 to 2008, the states with the most restrictions on the sale of raw milk had the lowest annual rate of illnesses from raw milk outbreaks—just 0.01 per 100,000 people. Moderately restrictive states came in a close second: 0.02-0.04 illnesses per 100,000 people. The least restrictive states had the highest annual rate: 0.04-0.13 illnesses per 100,000 people. Over the 11-year span the report covered, a total of 1,204 illnesses were reported.
Greene, one of the researchers said: “We estimate that approximately 35,000 illnesses may have occurred,” referring to the 11-year time period. Most of those—some 23,000—were linked to the Campylobacter organism.
And just in case you thought raw milk is dangerous while raw milk products are fine, let me talk to you about a 2015 study in the Journal of Dairy Science. The study examined a food poisoning outbreak that took place in a boarding school in Switzerland.
All 14 persons who ingested cheese made from raw milk got abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. The study concluded that “consumption of raw milk and soft cheese produced from raw milk constitutes a health risk, particularly when young children or other members of sensitive populations are involved.”
Does boiling raw milk make it safe?
Boiling raw milk at home is an attempt to pasteurize it. There are two problems with this practice:
First, pasteurization may be incomplete. Pasteurization works because it keeps a certain temperature for a specific amount of time. If, for example, you don’t keep the milk at high temperature enough time, then the process will be incomplete.
Second, there’s risk of overcooking the milk.
Finally, if you want to get raw milk only to try to pasteurize it at home, then why get raw milk in the first place? I don’t get it.
Maybe you have your own goat or other type of animal, or a friend brings you raw milk for free from his farm.
Maybe you’re a DIY kind of person who enjoys this process, or just love the extra fat that can sometimes be found in raw milk.
Still, if you do want to go for it, here’s a PDF guide from the State University of South Dakota on how to pasteurize raw milk at home. Did you know there’s such a thing as a home pasteurization machine? Apparently there is, and dairy farmers often use it to pasteurize their own milk for their own use.
If that sounds interesting to you check out this guide from Michigan State university too. Note that microwaving doesn’t work for pasteurization because of the oven’s uneven temperature.
What if the milk comes from a clean farm?
The farmer may run tests for the milk, but those tests even if negative, still don’t guarantee there’s no dangerous bacteria in there.
Moreover, even if the farmer has the very best of sanitary conditions for the animals and the milking process, there’s still no guarantee that the milk or milk products are free of dangerous germs.
And yes, I’m not making this up. This is the CDC’s guidelines.
What about raw cheese and other products that go through more processing than raw milk?
Some people are under the impression that raw milk products such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream are safer than just raw milk because of the extra processing. Unfortunately, these people are wrong. According to the CDC, these products can still cause infections if they are not made with pasteurized milk.
Listeria Outbreak in NY: Why Raw Cheese Should Be Avoided As Well.
The CDC recently announced a multi-state outbreak of Listeria linked to soft raw milk cheese made by Vulto Creamery in Walton, NY. Six people, ranging in age from newborn to 89 years, between September 2016 and January 2017. All of these people required hospitalization, and two of them died.
Listeria isn’t the only risk associated to raw cheese. According to a study conducted by Kyoung-Hee Cho et. al, other foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus have been associated worldwide with raw cheese consumption. Similar to the incident in Switzerland, many of these cases affected people especially susceptible to the risks, such as children, elderly, and pregnant women.
Pregnant women are at a higher risk from raw milk and raw cheese consumption.
Most pregnant moms have the attitude of ‘it’s not worth the risk’ when it comes to exposing themselves to unsafe foods, drinks, and activities. Foodsafety.gov has a detailed checklist of foods to avoid during pregnancy. Raw cheese and raw milk are included in this list. Why would you put yourself and your baby at risk?
Seriously, you really wouldn’t want something like this to happen your kid:
Or, like this woman from CA in 2009, you wouldn’t want to drink raw milk only to get paralyzed and risk never walking again.
Bad Arguments About Raw Milk and Raw Cheese Consumption.
While researching for this article, I came across a number of misleading or just plain wrong arguments. I could write a whole essay about it, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll keep this down to three:
Bad argument #1: Raw milk is better in nutritional value than pasteurized milk because it comes from grass-fed cows.
Without even getting into whether the grass-fed argument has merit, this is an attempt to mislead consumers. All cows, grass-fed or not, produce raw milk (obviously!). Comparing whether the milk from grass-fed cows is better than the milk from grain-fed cows is a totally different subject than the raw milk vs. pasteurized milk debate.
Bad argument #2: But doesn’t raw milk kill all sort of diseases?
I did read about what a “miracle” raw milk is. It treats allergies, it treats asthma, and a number of other diseases. Of course, there’s no scientific backing showing causation between drinking raw milk and improvement in any one of these conditions.
Generally, when you hear of a miracle, be extra-cautious. Unless the miracle is exercise. Exercise is linked to all sort of health benefits I could go on and on.
Bad argument #3: It’s safe because the human race has been drinking it for ages and we survived!
Yes, we survived! Despite an average lifespan of about 33!
I feel very strongly about this argument because it’s extremely stupid. Let me ask you.
- Would you put your kid on a bus if you knew that one of the kids would end up dead? Think about it. Even if one kid dies, it’s not like the group of kids in that bus in general won’t survive. They will! But they will be minus one.
- Would you get on an airplane if you knew there was a killer inside and one passenger would get injured or dead? Or would you choose another flight with no killers inside?
- Or, would you send your kid to a daycare facility if you knew that they have a history of poisoning kids, and were responsible for a death too? Hey the daycare still survived! All the other kids were fine! it was only those “unlucky” kids that got poisoned, and a very unlucky one that actually died.
- When the Plague hit Britain in the 14th century nearly half the population died. Hey, the British are alive and well today. So the Plague must be ok, no?
Hope I made my point. Even if some of us die, that doesn’t mean the race won’t survive. But that also doesn’t mean that we should let these people die (or get some other terrible disease). My question is – do the “benefits” of raw milk outweigh the risks, even if the risks have a small probability of happening?
Where can you learn more about raw milk and raw cheese?
The best resource is this PDF guide: It goes over everything from nutrition to risks for both raw cheese and raw milk. It’s all cited and science-backed. If anything I said in this article, spurred questions in your head, then by all means do check the guide. It’s very well-written and without knowing your question I’m 95% certain your question will be answered.
Other resources can be found at the CDC website and at Milk Facts.
href=”http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=133&showFR=1”< FDA Federal Registry: Cheeses and Related Cheese Products.
Raw Milk and Raw Cheese: Yay or nay? Nay!
I would never recommend raw milk. The only real potential benefit is taste, and that’s true only if you actually like raw milk better. I would not recommend raw cheese, either. The risks associated with it are similar to raw milk.
However, does such a questionable benefit worth the risk of poisoning, paralysis, or death? I doubt it.
Now if you were to buy raw milk and then pasteurize it yourself, then that could be ok. I did try to look for data examining the efficacy of home pasteurization methods. Also pasteurizing the milk at home always carries the risk that pasteurization will go wrong. Actually the chance something will go wrong always exists, but my guess is that this probability is greater at home.
Anyway, I didn’t actually find any data that examined the safety of milk pasteurized at home. And that’s why I’m not sure what to recommend here other than – If you do have data or recommended studies, please share in the comments!
Of course, even with this statement, I’m still supporting pasteurized milk and rejecting raw. The only difference is who would do the pasteurization – you or the experts?
And I would still not get it: If you’re gonna buy raw milk only to make the effort to pasteurize it at home (and possibly risk overcooking it too), then why not get pasteurized milk to start with?
Anyway, now let me ask you: Are you drinking raw milk or eating raw cheese? Why? Leave a comment.
This is part of the What We Should Really Be Eating? series. If you liked this, you might also like the Organic Milk vs. Regular Milk: Why I’m Ditching Organic article.
Clickable references drop down:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food Safety and Raw Milk. 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Multistate Outbreak of Listeriosis Linked to Soft Raw Milk Cheese Made by Vulto Creamery. March 2017.
Kyoung-Hee Choi, Heeyoung Lee, Soomin Lee, Sejeong Kim, and Yohan Yoon. Cheese Microbial Risk Assessments — A Review. Asian-Australas J Anim Sci: 2016 Mar; 29(3): 307–314.
Foodsafety.gov.Checklist of Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy.