Raw milk has made a comeback in recent years as advocates have claimed that the untreated milk is healthier, better tolerated, and has a better flavor than pasteurized milk. Some states have even considered relaxing laws about milk treatment to allow raw milk to make an appearance in the marketplace. But as popularity has grown, so have concerns about bacterial infection and illness related to raw milk consumption. A new report out this week reviewed the available studies about raw milk and raised serious concerns about its consumption.
What is raw milk?
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t gone through a process called pasteurization, which is designed to kill bacteria that could be living in the milk and that may be harmful to humans. Milk has been pasteurized for over 100 years in the United States since early studies found that bacterial diseases could be passed to people through raw milk. Before pasteurization, illness related to milk drinking was common and caused about one in every four cases of intestinal disease. While most of the illness was simple nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, more severe and deadly forms of illness could occur, especially in young children, pregnant women, and elderly adults. After raw milk sales were banned in the U.S., rates of milk-related illness dropped to less than one in 100 cases of illness.
What does the pasteurization process entail?
The bacteria that can grow in milk need certain conditions to grow and survive, including the right temperatures. Research has found that heating milk to 72ºC (about 160ºF) for 15 seconds is enough to kill most dangerous bacteria that might contaminate the milk. After this heating, the milk is rapidly cooled to 4ºC (about 40ºF). That temperature is below ideal growing temperature for bacteria, so that any left behind don’t have enough time to replicate to dangerous levels before the milk is consumed.
What claims have been made about raw milk?
Some of the popularity of raw milk comes from the new movement towards more local food consumption. But it has also been gaining ground among certain groups as a new health food that has benefits pasteurized milk doesn’t. Some have claimed that it reduces allergies, is more digestible than pasteurized milk, and can prevent a host of diseases including cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes. Some have also claimed that the infection risk is exaggerated and that there have been few recent cases of illness related to raw milk.
What did this report find?
The report examined several of these claims. They found there is no convincing research to show that raw milk is better tolerated by the digestive system than pasteurized milk. There is also no evidence that enzymes or bacteria contained in raw milk contribute to the digestive process in any way. They also found no evidence for claims made about reduced disease risk when drinking raw milk compared to pasteurized milk.
Some studies did show a link between drinking raw milk and a lower risk of allergies, but it wasn’t clear if the link was causal. It may be the case, for example, that people who drink raw milk, like farmers, are exposed to other factors in the environment that also lower allergy risk.
Finally, when examining infection rate, the researchers found indications that infection rates from drinking raw milk were up to 100 times higher than the risk from drinking pasteurized milk. While the number of cases are small, the number of people drinking raw milk is also currently small. They note that infection rates would almost certainly increase as more people consume raw milk. They also note that infection risk is especially dangerous in children and pregnant women who are also the populations raw milk advocates have said would benefit significantly from raw milk.
What should you do?
Ultimately, food choices are up to an individual, but decisions should be well-informed based on weighing the risks and benefits. This report shows that the benefits of raw milk are questionable at best and the risks of infection are high and, in some cases, potentially deadly for the most vulnerable. If you’re a pregnant woman, elderly person, child, or person with a chronic illness, you would be well advised to stick to regular, pasteurized milk.