There has been a debate raging for the past few years about the benefits and dangers of raw versus pasteurized milk and dairy products. Health food proponents contend that raw milk is beneficial to health due to the proteins, delicate enzymes, beneficial bacteria, vitamins and minerals it contains that are destroyed in the process of pasteurization. At the same time, those opposed to raw milk argue that without pasteurization, dangerous bacteria and germs are allowed to proliferate, possibly causing severe illness.
There is no simple answer as to which argument is most valid. Heating raw milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds to kill bacteria is a process that has been used for more than a century, and was first implemented in the US in the 1890s as a way of helping to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, which were highly contagious diseases thought to be transmitted through drinking raw milk. The most common pathogens it currently destroys are E. coli, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella; bacteria that are particularly dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
However, pasteurization kills not only the harmful organisms in milk, but the beneficial ones as well. Some researchers believe that the increasing rates of autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, allergies, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease over the past 50 years may be due to our lifestlyes being too clean. Those who grow up on farms have been found to suffer less from these diseases, their immune systems having been conditioned through regular exposure to pathogens.
The beneficial substances that are destroyed during pasteurization include lactoferrin, which helps in the absorption of iron and has antimicrobial and antiviral properties, including killing the bacteria responsible for causing cavities; immunoglobulins, which are antibodies that reduce viruses and bacteria and have been found to reduce the symptoms of asthma; and Lactobacilli (the beneficial bacteria in yogurt and probiotic drinks), which digest lactase, making it possible for many of the lactose intolerant to consume dairy products, and which aids in the absorption of calcium, iron and phosphorus.
The US has an average of 70 cases of food poisoning per year from the consumption of raw dairy products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most modern industrial dairies are hotbeds of pathogens, which is why many dairy cows are routinely treated with antibiotics. However, pastured dairy cows fed on grass carry lower levels of pathogens in their digestive tracts and their milk contains higher levels of beneficial CLA (an essential fatty acid) and less saturated fat, so their milk is healthier.
If you are considering giving raw milk a try, be sure it is from grass-fed cows from a reputable organic dairy. The benefits are many, though it is always good to keep in mind the possible risks involved.