No surprise here. I knew this was going to be a challenging day for me. I’m the one who follows the refrigerator rule, “if it smells OK, and looks OK, then it’s probably OK”. This rule has worked out really well for me in my 28 years on earth living amongst bacteria, viruses, and parasites. In fact, I can’t recall one time I’ve been acutely ill from food that’s come from my kitchen; and apparently I’ve been eating some pretty “fanatical” stuff!
As a traditional foods advocate and pastoral devotee, you can imagine my expression when my instructor stated in an passionate exchange, “Pasteurized just means heat. So this raw milk craze is just...full of fanatics. Cows aren’t the same animals they were 100 years ago when raw milk was safe.”
I was already earning the reputation of being the "farm girl" in the class, and the "yuppie who likes raw cheese", so I felt it was not the time or place to throw down in a debate, but I did vow to do some research into what rhetoric is out there regarding these fanatics I'm now a part of.
So let’s break her statement down with some data.
How safe is raw milk?
From 1993-2012, there were 144 hospitalizations total connected to raw milk. Every year, 128,000 people are hospitalized due to foodborne illness. So that’s about 2,432,000 cases total from 1993-2012. Which means the risk equates to about .0059%. These numbers are straight from Center of Disease Control, folks! On top of that, the instructor stressed at the beginning of the training that foodborne illness are grossly underestimated. Bottom line? People are getting sick from everyday foods in their homes, cafeterias, and restaurants due to improper hand washing and food handling.
Also, even if milk is pasteurized, just like with ANY other food, pesky bacteria and viruses can still sneak in. Any farm with a very good sanitation protocol can still have animals or produce that carry pathogens. Industrial farms just this year have been the culprit of salmonella and e.coli outbreaks.
The most common pathogen found in raw milk is Campylobacter. Overall, the bacteria causes an estimated 1.3 million illnesses in the United States each year. Again, on average, the number of illnesses connected to raw milk are a mere 196 a year. E.coli, which gets a lot of attention from anti-raw milk propaganda, is responsible for only 17% of these raw milk illnesses. Don't get me wrong, I completely validate the dangers of E.coli and fully hear those who are concerned about the life-threatening risk from unsafe food. While there are so few outbreaks in dairy overall, it is also true that there are more outbreaks from unpasteurized milk vs. pasteurized milk (from 1993-2006 there were 73 outbreaks connected to raw milk, and 48 connected to pasteurized). I recognize that the risk of infection increases as more people begin consuming raw milk in legalized states. However, we have to take a look at the whole picture and realize the risk is so tiny compared to what we expose ourselves to everyday. We must also see that the risk of hospitalization from consuming raw milk is so tiny compared to the enormous value of its benefits. In this case, the benefits do not just outweigh the risks, they eclipse them...
Less Allergies + Asthma
There are some positively staggering numbers related to the reduction of asthma and allergies in children exposed to raw milk. Several studies suggest that children who drink raw milk are 50 percent less likely to develop allergies (not just dairy) and 41 percent less likely to develop asthma compared to children who don’t. Pasteurized milk has been strongly associated with the increase in asthma, allergies, ADD, autoimmune diseases and more.
Less Nutrient Deficiencies
Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies in children are fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K) which are vital for brain function and development. Raw milk from grass-fed animals has higher levels of these vitamins, along with other vitamins, electrolytes, & minerals that Americans are commonly deficient in. These are all reduced when exposed to pasteurization:
Less Type 2 Diabetes and Osteoporosis
Raw milk is less acidifying than pasteurized milk. When our blood pH rises, calcium is stripped from our bones to maintain homeostasis. So unfortunately the advice to drink tons of milk to keep your bones healthy, actually has had the opposite effect. Raw milk also does not spike blood sugar like conventional milk does. With less blood sugar pressure on the pancreas, there is less likelihood of you becoming insulin resistant (1 in 3 Americans already are...). Plus, it contains high levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which are fatty acids that help lower blood sugar, body weight, and cholesterol.
So with all due respect Mrs. Sanitarian, pasteurization doesn’t “just mean heat”—because heat means so much more. It means the destruction of beneficial enzymes that help us digest the proteins and other nutrients found in dairy. It means the significant reduction of vitamins and minerals that are essential to bone density, hormone balance, neurologic support, cardiovascular function, immune health, and skin, hair & nails health. Rather than fighting the farms that want to provide wholesome, nutritious foods, let's work with them so we don't see an increase in outbreaks relative to the increase in raw milk consumption.
Thirsty for more? Check out these resources:
1. The protective effect of farm milk consumption on childhood asthma and atopy: The GABRIELA study
2. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of pasteurization on milk vitamins, and evidence for raw milk consumption and other health-related outcomes.
3. Raw Milk Outbreaks - CDC
4. Dr. Axe's Raw Milk Benefits
5. Raw Milk Hot Topics
6. Increased Outbreaks Associated with Nonpasteurized Milk, United States, 2007–2012