Raw milk. It reminds one of my friends of the Weird Al video for “Amish Paradise” where he milks a cow directly over a bowl of cereal. Actually, this isn’t too far off. Raw milk is cow’s milk that hasn’t been heat-treated for pasteurization or homogenization. According to the true believers, the health benefits of moo juice direct from the mooer are tremendous. People have reported positive health effects for allergies, asthma, Crohn’s disease and other digestive problems, osteopenia and, of course, the holy grail of any good dietary alteration, autism.
But in steps that pesky science thing to mess up all the fun. See, other than anecdotal reports, there is no good research in the US demonstrating any health benefits of raw cow’s milk over pasteurized milk. But the reports! Oh, the reports! Remember, people also report on the healing properties of crystals and being abducted by aliens (perhaps they are the same people?). Anecdotal reports of effectiveness are the weakest form of science possible.
I know what you’re thinking: there he goes again ruining people’s fun. This is a free society and if people want to suck the milk right out of a cow since they think it’s healthier, why the heck shouldn’t they? There’s no harm in it….is there?
Firstly, there is also no reason to think raw milk escapes any of the health hazards known to be caused by animal protein present in dairy. But that’s beside the point for this post. The basic facts about raw milk safety are the same as any other food. If the raw milk has not been contaminated by microbial pathogens, it is as safe to drink as pasteurized milk (not very…but I digress). If it is contaminated, then the microbes can sicken anyone who consumes the milk. Contamination can come from bovine diseases, or manure or dirt that is brought into contact with the milk by insects or humans.
Most raw-milk drinkers do take care in choosing the sources of their milk and seek out farmers who take steps to reduce the risks. In contrast, milk that is intended for pasteurization is typically produced in large, confinement dairies that can fall back on the knowledge that any impurities in the milk will be killed during pasteurization. So in theory, the raw milk should be safer as a result of more careful farming.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) numbers, there were 74 outbreaks of illness due to raw milk in the U.S. from 1993 to 2006. These outbreaks led to 1,600 individual food-poisoning cases, including 202 hospitalizations and two deaths. During the same time period, there were 48 outbreaks due to pasteurized milk, leading to 1,223 cases, 30 hospitalizations and one death. These numbers look roughly equivalent until you consider the fact that many more people drink pasteurized milk than the number of those who drink raw milk. Regulators estimate that less than 0.5 percent of U.S. milk is consumed unpasteurized. If that’s the case, assuming the above statistics are accurate, then raw milk is much, much riskier than pasteurized milk.
So what, right? You’re willing to take that risk since the benefits of raw milk are going to be so fantastic! It’s so much more absorbable when the milky proteins aren’t denatured. Despite concerns to the contrary, pasteurization does not seem to change the nutritional value of milk. It has not been shown to be more absorbable, have higher calcium or give you magical powers. And, knowing that animal protein is as harmful and carcinogenic as it is in all forms, the odds that any of those risks are actually reduced by not heating the product and removing the bacteria prior to consumption defies logic. To me, this puts raw milk in the same basket as cigarettes produced with no preservatives: perhaps the tiniest bit more safe but who are you kidding?
Stick to organic soy milk or rice milk and leave the cow’s milk for whom it is intended — baby cows.
Dr. Brett Kinsler is a skeptical chiropractor in Rochester, NY.