Raw milk has been controversial for more than 100 years, and judging by the feedback on last week’s column about the potential risks, the debate shows no sign of easing up anytime soon. This week, I’m taking a look at the health benefits of the stuff, along with the all-important flavor. So pour yourself a glass (raw or pasteurized—I don’t care), grab a handful of cookies, and get comfy.
Anecdotes and testimonials regarding the health benefits of raw milk abound on the Internet and, odds are, at your local farmers market or food co-op. Proponents claim that pasteurization kills vital nutrients, enzymes, and “good” bacteria that can help ills ranging from asthma and allergies to serious diseases. But what about the science? Contrary to popular belief, there really has been quite a bit of research done on the subject over the years.
If you compare the nutritional components of pasteurized whole milk and raw milk from grass-fed cows, you’ll see that there are no major differences for nutrients such as protein (1 cup provides about 8 grams), carbohydrates (13 grams), and most vitamins and minerals—including B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B12, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. Yes, vitamin C is virtually destroyed by the heat of pasteurization, but the amount in raw milk is negligible (5 milligrams per cup) when compared with that in fruits (strawberries: 86.5 milligrams per cup) and vegetables (red bell pepper, chopped: 190.3 milligrams per cup) and can be easily compensated for in a varied, balanced diet.
As I wrote in a 2013 column on raw food, all living organisms contain thousands of different enzymes, and each one triggers a specific—and species-specific— biochemical reaction. Central to raw-foodism [and raw-milkism] is the fervent belief that the enzymes in raw food carry a “life force” that leads to increased vitality and other health benefits. However, the enzymes present in raw milk are there to aid the digestive systems of newborn calves. We humans have our own digestive enzymes, about 22 of them. The only people who can put those bovine enzymes to good use are cheese makers.
“The lactose-intolerant argument has been bolstered by the fact that both laypeople and many doctors often chalk up any milk-related digestive trouble to lactose intolerance without conducting specific diagnostic tests,” wrote Anne Mendelson, culinary historian and author of Milk, in the Spring 2011 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. “Lactose [a milk sugar] cannot be the culprit in all such cases, because raw milk contains as much lactose as pasteurized. Nor, as some believers claim, does raw milk have enough lactase [an enzyme] to break down lactose. Lactase does not occur in milk; it is secreted in the small intestine of all baby mammals.” For more about lactose intolerance and what an evolutionary biologist has to say about it, check out this column from March 2013.
You may also be interested in the results of a small, randomized, double-blind Stanford University study, published this spring in the Annals of Family Medicine and funded in part by the Weston A. Price Foundation—a huge advocate for raw milk through its Real Milk campaign. “It’s not that there was a trend toward a benefit from raw milk and our study wasn’t big enough to capture it; it’s that there was no hint of any benefit,” said nutrition expert Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and senior author of the study. I’m quoting a Stanford release here, as I can’t find anything about the study on the WAPF website. “When claims about ‘all-natural’ foods are merely anecdotal, it works against the food movement and undermines nutrition science,” Gardner added. “Let’s get to the part that’s real and do away with myths and anecdotes.”
Beneficial Bacteria (Probiotics)
The term probiotic in reference to “good” bacteria, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, was first coined in the 1960s, and research in the area has progressed considerably in the last 20 years, according to the World Health Organization. In a 2001 report on the health and nutritional properties of probiotics in food, WHO defined probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” And M.E. Sanders, a leading expert in the field, wrote in an article for Clinical Infectious Disease Journal that “the term probiotic should only be used for products that meet the scientific criteria for this term.” She goes on to propose that “probiotics must be identified to the level of strain, must be characterized for the specific health target, and must be formulated into products using strains and doses shown to be efficacious.”
“Randomized double-blind studies have provided evidence of probiotic effectiveness for the treatment and prevention of acute diarrhea and antibiotic-induced diarrhea, as well as for the prevention of cow milk–induced food allergy in infants and young children,” according to the overview in that journal. Furthermore, “research studies have also provided evidence of effectiveness for the prevention of traveler’s diarrhea, relapsing Clostridium difficile–induced colitis, and urinary tract infections. There are also studies indicating that probiotics may be useful for prevention of respiratory infections in children, dental caries, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.”
That all sounds very exciting, but raw milk—as yet—doesn’t fit the probiotics definition. I reached out to Sanders for clarification. “Probiotics are not the same as live microbes,” she wrote back in an email. “Being a live microbe is necessary, but not sufficient, to meet the definition of a probiotic. The microbe must also have been studied and shown to confer a health benefit. The microbes that contaminate raw milk may be alive, but until they are isolated, identified, and studied for specific health benefits, they do not fall under the probiotic ‘umbrella.’ ”
Asthma and Other Allergic Conditions
Children who drink raw milk seem to suffer less from asthma and allergies. “In Europe, the consumption of unpasteurized milk has repeatedly correlated with protection against allergic disease,” wrote Moises Velasquez-Manoff, in the New York Times last year. In the United States, 80 percent of the Amish studied by allergist Mark Holbreich, who Velasquez-Manoff spoke with for his story, consume “farm” milk. As a population, they have very low rates of allergies, but it’s not clear whether it or another farm factor, such as being around livestock, is the key to the reduced instances. This “hygiene hypothesis” is well-known and the subject of studies such as one published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy in 2000 and another published in Lancet in 2001.
A helpful 2008 review of peer-reviewed published studies by attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in food poisoning cases, also mentions the much larger Parsifal study of almost 15,000 children in five European countries. A major flaw in that substantial bit of research is that raw milk was not distinguished from farm milk that had been boiled. (Can we pause for a collective whaaat?) The researchers concluded that drinking farm milk is associated with a reduced risk of asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis during childhood. The same association was observed both on and off the farm, suggesting that the milk, not living around livestock, plays a key role—but the study doesn’t offer a full-throated endorsement.
“A deepened understanding of the relevant ‘protective’ components of farm milk and a better insight into the biological mechanisms underlying the reported epidemiological observation are warranted as a basis for the development of a safe product for prevention,” the researchers wrote. “At this stage, consumption of raw farm milk cannot be recommended as a preventive measure.”
Last but Not Least: What About Flavor?
People tend to be particular about milk. They like what they like. Some only buy the kind in glass bottles. One friend of mine only buys it in aseptic containers because the taste reminds her of the time she lived in Europe. People who grew up on commercial skim milk often find the cream at the top of unhomogenized whole milk revolting. Everyone pretty much agrees, though, that raw milk fresh from the farm tastes different from what’s in his or her refrigerator—it has a wonderfully clean yet creamy mouthfeel.
You’re waiting for a “but,” aren’t you? Well, here it comes.
“Rawness and pasteurization have nothing to do with the plain fact that milk produced by farmers with sane breeding-and-feeding priorities tastes better than milk cranked out with an eye only to volume,” Anne Mendelson points out in Milk. “Some of the best milk I’ve tasted has been raw, and so has some of the worst.” She is an indefatigable researcher, and I don’t doubt her for a second.
She also points out that there is pasteurization, and then there’s pasteurization. “At one time, it was routinely done at a comparatively low temperature for a long time by pumping batches in and out of a vat. This method eliminated harmful bacteria with minimal impairment of flavor. The more cost-effective approaches that are almost universal today involve higher temperatures with near instantaneous heating and cooling by continuous flow,” leaving the milk tasting cooked.
“But it’s hard to attribute particular flavor effects to those techniques alone,” she continues, “because they’re almost always carried out together with homogenization.” I’ve had some poor excuses for raw milk as well, but on the whole, it’s been absolutely delicious. It has terroir. It has body. But you can get virtually the same effect from unhomogenized pasteurized milk if it’s ultrafresh and pasteurized in batches, the old-fashioned way. That’s what I buy, for what it’s worth. Look for it at your farmers market.
The takeaway? Despite the obvious health risks and lack of evidence for its health benefits, raw milk continues to grow in popularity and is becoming increasingly easy to obtain. The appeal of raw milk seems to be based as much on the issue of personal choice as it is on nutrition. Dairy farmers should be able to sell a profitable product, and consumers should be able to decide if raw milk is for them. But everyone concerned should separate fact from pseudoscience.