Several friends have asked me recently about raw milk, so I thought that I’d share my thoughts on the topic, from an animal scientist’s point of view. You’ve probably heard of raw milk before, but maybe you haven’t sat back and really thought about what the words mean, maybe you couldn’t care less, or maybe you strive to buy raw milk from a local farmer and desire to know more about the topic. I am going to provide you with some knowledge about the facts and the myths about raw milk, along with my personal recommendations for milk consumption.
So what exactly is raw milk? Imagine milking a cow and then drinking that milk fresh out of the cow. That is raw milk. The pasteurization (heating milk just enough to get rid of harmful bacteria) and homogenization (dispersion of fat globules within milk to make the product the same consistency throughout) processes do not occur, and no additional ingredients are added to the milk. It is creamy, sweet, and very heavy. I personally have tried raw milk on the farm and I do not like the taste of it. I grew up drinking 2% milk, so even whole milk tastes too thick for me (and skim is far too watery for me). This raw product could not be any more natural if we tried. Therefore, there is an increasing desire for consumers to buy raw milk, as they strive to find natural products from the farmers themselves that they may think is healthier. However, in the case of milk, a processed product is necessary in order to protect human health. And as I will explain below, raw milk is not any healthier or more nutritious than the pasteurized product that you can find in the grocery store. What many people do not necessarily know is how harmful raw milk really is to our health. There are inherent risks associated with raw milk, no matter which farm the milk is coming from. As a result, the sale of raw milk is illegal in about half of the U.S. states. I personally am a strong believer in consumer choice and the ability for someone to purchase the products that he or she wants, but I am also a scientist and I would not want for someone to compromise his or her health, or especially a child’s health, for a product that is just as healthy and nutritious as the pasteurized, SAFE gallon of milk from the supermarket. I personally do NOT recommend for ANYONE to consume raw milk, even farmers themselves.
Myth #1: Raw milk is safer than pasteurized milk
This is going to be a long explanation, but the most important one. Let me first explain how milk gets from the farm to your table. A farmer works with a nutritionist to formulate a specific diet for each individual cow group on the farm- pregnant cows getting ready to have calves will eat a different diet than cows who are producing milk. Most farmers feed their cows grasses that they grow themselves, with some added nutrients and grains as recommended by their nutritionist. Naturally, cows eat a lot (they are ~1500 pound animals!). In fact, a single dairy cow eats about 100 pounds of feed and drinks about a bathtub of water every day. And considering what goes in the animal, must also come out, well…I think you can agree with me when I say that cows produce a shit ton (no pun intended) of fecal matter. Dairy cows are inherently dirty. It doesn’t matter how large or small the farm is and it doesn’t matter whether the cows are organic, out on pasture (isn’t the outdoors where diseases come from?), or grass-fed. They will always poop a lot. Cows are herbivores, meaning that they only eat plant material, which is very fibrous. Cows are also what are called ruminants, with their stomachs consisting of four compartments- reticulum, rumen, omasum, and abomasum. And these compartments each have their own individual function to help the cow digest the extremely fibrous materials that their diet consists of. Have you ever eaten a Fiber One granola bar? I have. I had to poop like twelve times that day. But man, are they delicious! My point is that eating a diet high in fiber inherently makes an animal produce a large amount of fecal matter. Therefore, when a cow is milked there is always a chance that either 1.) fecal matter will get into the milk supply, or 2.) the cow will decide to poop right when she is being milked, which will result in number one.
Farmers work hard to prevent any feces from getting into the milk supply, which is why they follow strict guidelines when it comes to cleaning cows’ udders and the milking equipment at the farm. The teats on the cows’ udders are sanitized before and after the milking process, and equipment is washed down after individual cows are milked. Workers are trained to follow the most sanitary procedures. And contrary to popular belief, the larger farms often actually have the money and technology to enforce more sanitary procedures. Milk then goes into a bulk tank, is picked up by the milk processing company, is pasteurized/made SAFE, and sold to consumers at supermarkets within as little as two days. I don’t believe that raw milk is safer than pasteurized milk. In fact, I completely disagree with that statement. Here are some facts about the dangers of raw milk:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1998 to 2009 there was an average of 1,837 illnesses ANNUALLY resulting from raw milk consumption. 195 of those resulted in hospitalizations and 2 people died each of those years from consuming raw milk. BUT, here’s the kicker: Only about 3% of the U.S. population is even drinking raw milk! Can you imagine how many more illnesses and, God-forbid deaths, would occur if everyone drank raw milk?! Oy vey. CDC states that improperly handled raw milk is responsible for almost three times more hospitalizations than any other food-borne illnesses, which makes raw milk one of the world’s most dangerous foods!
Bacteria for some reason find milk to be a great place to grow and proliferate aka make baby bacteria. So even if there would be no fecal contamination in your raw milk, the lack of pasteurization could give bacteria a chance to grow faster and sooner. Pasteurization is a process that was developed by biologist Louis Pasteur in 1864 to reduce the number of viable pathogens in a product, thus making them unlikely to cause disease. Pasteurization heats the milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds only, and then the milk is cooled. This not only makes the milk safe, but it also extends the product’s shelf life by slowing the ability for bacteria to grow. Some diseases that pasteurization can prevent included tuberculosis, brucellosis, diptheria, scarlet fever, and can also kill Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli. Pasteurization is the ONLY scientific method of eliminating potentially harmful bacteria from our milk and ensuring that the product is safe for human consumption. And pasteurization DOES make the product completely safe.
Myth #2: Raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk
There are no known health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be acquired from drinking pasteurized milk. Raw milk does not prevent cancer. It does not cure diseases. And it does not cure allergies or lactose intolerance. If you are lactose intolerent, there are many pasteurized, safe products available for your needs. Some people ask me about how the pasteurization process affects enzymes in milk. According to the CDC, pasteurization DOES inactivate some enzymes in milk. However, those enzymes that are inactivated are not considered important in human health. Some nutrients in milk are decreased through pasteurization, including vitamin C. But pasteurized milk still contains a high amount of nine essential nutrients including protein, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B12. Losing a bit of vitamin C is a loss that I will take to make sure that I am consuming a safe product. Plus, I can acquire my vitamin C for the day in many other ways- like drinking orange juice (obviously in addition to drinking milk!)
Myth #3: Raw milk is made from cows who are happier
All farmers work hard every day to make sure that their cows are happy and healthy. No matter what type of farm they have. They work with nutritionists and veterinarians to ensure that their girls are getting the best nutrition and medical care possible. Happy cows are cows that produce milk. In fact, there is a natural hormone called oxytocin that cows release when they are milked. Oxytocin is the “happy hormone,” literally. And when a cow produces higher amounts of milk, she actually releases more oxytocin. Side note: Humans release oxytocin when they are happy as well. It doesn’t affect the milk supply.
Myth #4: All farm families drink raw milk and don’t get sick
A lot of my friends are dairy farmers. Some of them do drink the raw milk from their farms, but a lot of them don’t because they have gotten sick in the past and they understand the risks associated with it. It is difficult to determine the presence of germs in raw milk. The number of germs in a given sample may not be enough to make a certain person sick at a certain time, but there is always the risk!
Myth #5: Raw milk is better for children than pasteurized milk
AHHHHHHH!!!! Noooo! Can I please express my disagreement here?! Sometimes people desire to buy raw milk so that they can feed it to their children. This is a huge mistake! If my reasons above do not convince you, check out this link for stories of people whose lives have been affected tremendously as a result of consuming raw milk. Additionally, in September 2006 a child’s mother gave her son raw milk because he was lactose intolerant and had asthma. The child ended up being hospitalized, with E. coli O157:H7 food poisoning and he also developed hemolytic uremic syndrome from drinking the raw milk. We cannot see or smell germs in raw milk, so we could accidentally be feeding our children a product that is not safe! Now I am not a mother, but I know that someday I will be and I will NEVER want to expose my children to unsafe foods that they don’t have a choice in consuming! They are too young to understand the risks associated with raw milk consumption.
Myth #6: Raw milk does not contain antibiotics or hormones
Okay, so this is TRUE. However, NO MILK contains antibiotics or hormones! Just lots of nutrients. Nine, in fact. All milk is tested several times to ensure that it is safe and antibiotic/hormone-free. If a cow is sick and needs to be treated using antibiotics, her milk is DUMPED down the drain and doesn’t even touch the milk supply! Farmers work closely with veterinarians to make sure that their cows are healthy and happy. Hormones are sometimes used when a cow is having trouble producing milk on her own, but once again the milk is tested to make sure that it is safe for consumption before reaching store shelves!
Like I mentioned previously, I am pro-consumer choice in a lot of areas. However, I also feel that as a scientist in the dairy industry it is my job to help provide the safest product available to the public. When health risks become a factor, the government must take control and regulate the sales of raw milk. Especially when children are involved. If we have the capability to ensure that the entire U.S. milk supply is safe, then why would we want to jeopardize that by selling raw milk? The pasteurization process ensures that our milk is safe, wholesome and nutritious. Pasteurizing does not result in a product that is less healthy than the raw milk product. And it does not lessen the quality of the milk. If you prefer to buy your dairy products directly from the farmer themselves, there are many local dairy farms that have pasteurizers and sell their pasteurized milk off of their farms. Or, if you prefer the thick, creamy taste or raw milk, look for a non-homogenized pasteurized product. However, I want to be clear that all milk sold in grocery stores is safe, wholesome and nutritious. The dairy industry is one of the most highly regulated industries! All milk contains nine essential nutrients for optimum health and nutrition. If you are looking for probiotic foods, eat yogurt, milk, or kefir that is pasteurized and has had probiotic bacteria added to it. I personally feel that raw milk advocacy groups mislead consumers by making it seem as though raw milk is safer or significantly healthier than pasteurized milk, to ultimately increase sales. I recommend doing your research on raw milk before deciding to drink it. Raw milk is very unsafe and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone to risk getting sick by drinking it. I do not recommend for anyone to consume raw milk (do I need to say that again?)! And quite frankly, you’ll save a lot of money by consuming pasteurized milk because raw milk is a niche market that is expensive!
Ps- Have you had your three servings of pasteurized dairy products today? If not, it’s time to go eat some cheese.
For additional information and resources on raw milk consumption check out these credible sources: