Raw Milk: Is It Good or Bad?-Transformation TV-Episode #014
Should You Drink Raw Milk?
Kimchi, kombucha, sprouted bread, chia seeds: My kitchen is home to what some might call "pretty funky" stuff. I'm always on the lookout for interesting health foods, and what I buy is generally a result of research, friends' recommendations, and, of course, taste. But there's one funky food that's got me and other health-conscious people perplexed: raw milk. So I decided to do a little digging, and here's the hornet's nest—or cow pie—I unknowingly kicked.
What is raw milk?
Depending on whom you talk to, raw milk is either a superfood loaded with nutrients and enzymes that help boost immune function, alleviate allergies, and make milk easier to digest...or it's a super good way to make you double over with diarrhea. Often produced from grass-fed, organically-raised cows, raw milk is considered raw because it skips the commercial chain of pasteurization, a process that heats milk to high enough temperatures to kill pathogens that may be present due to contamination or sick cows.
What are the risks and benefits?
Both the CDC and FDA are adamant in advising people not to consume raw milk. In a recent report, the CDC found that there were 81 total outbreaks in the U.S. from disease-causing bacteria found in unpasteurized milk, sickening around 1,000 people from 2007 to 2012.
"As a healthcare provider, I wouldn't recommend it," says Kelly Morrow, RD, associate professor of nutrition at Bastyr University and Bastyr Center for Natural Health. "People are playing roulette when they drink raw milk. It's like drinking water right out of a mountain stream: Most of the time it's fine, but every once in a while you get a bad bug."
MORE: Which Is Healthier: Goat Milk vs Cow Milk
These "bad bugs" can include foodborne illnesses like listeria, E. Coli, and salmonella. "Most healthy adults who become ill will recover, but a small number of people may develop symptoms that are chronic, severe, or even life threatening," says Deborah Orlick Levy, RD, Carrington Farms health and nutrition consultant.
Those favor of raw milk, though, argue that illness-related deaths attributed to the drink are remarkably low compared to other foods. For example, three big outbreaks involving peanuts, eggs, and cantaloupe accounted for 39 deaths from 2009 to 2011, while there were just two deaths caused by raw milk from 1998 to 2011, according to the CDC.
Some doctors are in favor of patients trying try raw milk, as long they know it's coming from a reputable place. "The natural non-pathogenic bacteria found in raw milk are healthy for the gut and help immune-system function," says Daniel Kalb, MD, a family physician based in Franklin, TN. He says some of his patients with allergies and asthma have experienced relief when drinking raw milk, and some even experience less overall illness.
And although personal anecdotes may make up a good chunk of raw milk's praise, there is some scientific data to back it up the benefits, too. In a 2011 study inThe Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers selected a random sample of children from rural areas of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria who had similar exposure to farms. Children drinking raw milk from a local farm were found to be less likely to have asthma and food allergies than those drinking pasteurized milk, potentially due to the preservation of certain heat-sensitive proteins and bacteria in raw milk. Of course, this research, like anything that speaks positively of raw milk, still comes under scrutiny—"I question whether or not the results have more to do with living on a farm than drinking raw milk," says Morrow.
Who should try raw milk?
All the experts I spoke with agreed on one thing: Certain people shouldn't drink raw milk, as they're more likely to get sick from the potential pathogens it contains. This includes the elderly, pregnant women, young children, and people with weakened immune systems such as cancer patients and those taking immune-suppressant meds for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
As for the rest of the population, it's a "try at your own risk" thing. First, make sure it's legal in your state—due to the risk of foodborne pathogens, it's still prohibited in some. If you want to drink raw milk, experts say to get it from local farmers, not from stores or suppliers who get it from far away. Ask local suppliers how often they test their cows for illness and their milk for pathogens. Also be sure to ask if the milk you're buying is less than 48 hours old (so there's less incubation time for potentially dangerous bacteria to multiply), how long the farmer has been providing milk (the longer, the better), and if there have been any reported illnesses (some states require this as part of their permitting process).
Are there any raw-milk alternatives?
Organic milk from grass-fed cows has been shown to contain more healthy fats than conventional milk, and is produced without the use of antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones. But if you want a less processed milk consider looking into the growing trend of vat pasteurized milk, or milk pasteurized at a lower temperature than conventional milk to preserve its farm-fresh taste and some healthy proteins.
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