Is Raw Milk Dangerous?

By Michael A. Smith, MD

Raw milk is unpasteurized, meaning it’s not heated before processing. Raw milk advocates say that pasteurization destroys all of the nutrients found in milk, while those against it say that it harbors dangerous pathogens. Who’s right?

Well, let’s take a look at the reported benefits of raw milk and then the research on the dangers. From there, we’ll let you decide. But first, let’s take a look at what makes “ideal” raw milk.

Grass-Fed Cows Produce the Best Raw Milk

The ideal raw milk is taken straight from animals fed only organic green grass. The milk is then filtered and rapidly cooled between 36-38 degrees. The last step is bottling. But that’s pretty much it ... filtration, cooling and no processing.

Diet is a major factor in the quality of raw milk. Studies have shown that over-feeding starchy grains can affect the acidity of the cow's stomach environment and change fat and nutrient levels.1

Lastly, if cows are fed grains or soy instead of grass, this can change the milk content due to the estrogen-like effects from the grain. While these can cause cows to produce more milk than they normally would, some studies have called into question possible impacts on animal health and the nutrient content of the milk.

So why do people drink raw milk? The benefits of course — benefits that you won’t find in pasteurized milk. So let’s go over them.

Benefits of Raw Milk – Protein

Raw milk supplies your body with more intact protein than pasteurized milk. The two major proteins found in milk are casein and whey. The problem arises when you heat the milk during pasteurization. This will “denature” or break down the protein, making them less nutritious. This denaturing effect is especially true for the heat sensitive whey protein.

Proteins are comprised of individual building blocks called amino acids. There are a total of 21 to 22 human amino acids (depending on how you organize them), eight of which are essential. This means that your body cannot make them and you have to get them from your diet. And guess what? Milk provides all eight essential amino acids.

But just like with whey protein, pasteurization can destroy the amino acids rendering them useless, at least according to raw milk drinkers.

Now let’s talk about the milk protein lactoferrin, which is actually a minor fraction of whey protein. It appears to have a wide variety of uses in biological systems and is considered a first line of immune defense in the human body.

Published studies examining lactoferrin and its beneficial effects on immunity have been quite promising. Lactoferrin helps maintain a proper level of “good” bacteria in the intestinal tract, while controlling the number of “bad” bacteria. It also seems to help up-regulate important immune cells called natural-killer cells. These are virus killers.2

Benefits of Raw Milk – Enzymes

Another reported benefit of raw milk is natural enzymes. Researchers report that there are over 60 fully intact and functional enzymes in raw milk.3,4 Some of them are native to milk, and others come from beneficial bacteria growing in the milk. Just keeping track of them would require a post-doctoral degree.

As with whole protein, heat pasteurization destroys these enzymes, making regular milk deficient in them comparatively.

Benefits of Raw Milk – Beneficial Bacteria

Some people say that raw milk contains more beneficial bacteria than pasteurized milk. Most of these bacteria are lactic acid forming bacteria which are able to fight off dangerous ones. Not only that, these beneficial bacteria can also help to digest food for improved nutrient absorption.

So overall, these “good-for-you bacteria” improve gut health and immunity. But you guessed it. Just like with protein and the enzymes, raw milk drinkers say that pasteurization kills these beneficial bacteria.

CDC Says Raw Milk is Not Safe

Here’s the latest statement on raw milk by the Centers for Disease Control: “Raw, or unpasteurized, milk causes 150 times more dairy product-related disease outbreaks than pasteurized milk. Additionally, where the sale of raw milk is legal there is twice as many disease outbreaks as states where it is illegal.”5

Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC division of foodborne illness, says that this study shows a clear association between state laws legalizing raw milk and the number of outbreaks and illnesses from raw milk products.

He’s speaking about a 13-year review that looked at more than 120 dairy product-related outbreaks that occurred in 30 states between 1993 and 2006. The outbreaks caused more than 4,400 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths.

Raw milk products — including cheese and yogurt — caused 73 of the outbreaks and most of the 239 hospitalizations. The CDC believes that unless milk is pasteurized — heated to kill harmful bacteria — bacteria can accumulate in collected milk, multiply and cause illness.

What Do You think?

Is raw milk safe? Leave us a comment below to share your opinion. Bring on the healthy debate!

  1. http://www.uwex.edu/ces/ag/teams/dairy/FLlameness02.pdf
  2. Virology. 2005 Mar 15;333(2)284-92.
  3. http://jds.fass.org/cgi/reprint/56/5/531
  4. Blanc, B., 1982. Les protéines du lait à activité enzymatique et hormonale. Le Lait 62:350-395.
  5. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/RawMilk/

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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have been a raw milk drinker for 10 years and I know many people who grew up on farms where that was all they ever drank and no one I know (nor myself or my family) have ever been sickened by drinking raw milk.
I would like to see statistics on how many people are sickened by eating in restaurants every day. It is impossible to come up with accurate numbers because most people get sick several hours after eating out and never report it because they think they have "the flu". What they don't know is "the flu" is not about a stomach bug. If you have diarrhea and nausea it is another bug altogether and it could be it was carried to you by the unwashed hands of a server in the restaurant where you had supper.
Raw milk gets the blame every time someone gets sick but many times these same "sick" people ate raw spinach, raw salad ingredients, and undercooked eggs. Sometimes their food has been prepared in a kitchen that was less than clean.
Unfortunately, it does happen that people get sick from raw milk that was not properly collected and stored but that can even happen with pasteurized milk.
I guess I would like to ask these questions of every person who objects to those of us who want to drink raw milk: Have you ever been to a large factory dairy where the cows are stanchioned and stepping in their own feces? Where their bottoms are covered in feces? And the piles of dung steam and the stench travels for 10s of miles? They are horrible pits and even if pasteurized I would hate drinking that milk as you can only cook so much filth out of a product.
If you have a grass fed dairy nearby go and visit. The farmers are more than willing to give a tour because they are proud of their farms and they keep them clean. I love them because the cows are happy cows not tortured cows and all you smell is clean countryside.

goddessoflubbock said...

I grew up near the Amish. They only drank raw milk as did I growing up. I never got sick. At all. And you never hear of an outbreak of illness among the Amish either...

Jeffrey Becker DC said...

Michael, surprised you did not mention the A1 vs. A2 casein issue. Although technically that could be viewed as different than raw vs. pasteurized.

Anonymous said...

With the way you wrote this entry its clear you either don't believe the raw milk crowd or they don't actually have much if any evidence to back up their claims. Also the grass-fed milk issue is entirely unrelated to pasteurization. The bit about lactoferrin while interesting is not noted whether it is destroyed by pasteurization. Also I'm not sure why people think pasteurizing milk would destroy its proteins while heating other protein sources does not affect them.

Life Extension said...

Anonymous, we tried to present both sides of the debate. That's all.

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