In Raw Milk Reality: Is Raw Milk Dangerous?, we took a closer look at the claims made by groups like the FDA and CDC that raw milk is “dangerous”. We found that, though the relative risk of becoming ill from drinking raw milk is about 9 times greater than it is from drinking pasteurized milk, the absolute risk of developing a serious illness (i.e. one that would require hospitalization) from drinking raw milk is exceedingly small: about 1 in 6 million.
Nevertheless, as small as the risk of drinking raw milk is, we still need to answer the question: why take the risk? What benefits does raw milk have over pasteurized milk that have convinced nearly 10 million people in the U.S. alone to actively seek it out?
Why drink raw milk in the first place?
There are many reasons one might prefer raw milk over pasteurized milk, ranging from nutritional to ethical to environmental. Different people will resonate with different reasons, depending on their value system, worldview and priorities.
Many consumers believe that raw milk is higher in nutritional content than conventional milk, which may have some merit. Raw milk comes from cows that graze on grass. Some evidence suggests that milk from these cows is likely to have higher levels of fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients. Cows fed fresh green forage, especially those grazing grass, have been shown to have higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and essential fatty acids in their milk. (1,2) Cows are natural herbivores and are healthiest when they eat grass, rather than the grain they are fed in confinement dairy operations.
The pasteurization process also reduces the nutritional quality of milk products. Research has shown a decrease in manganese, copper, and iron after heat treatment. (3) The FDA acknowledges that pasteurization destroys a substantial portion of the vitamin C in milk, and sterilization is also known to significantly impair the bioactivity of vitamin B6 contained in milk. (4, 5) Beta-lactoglobulin, a heat-sensitive protein in milk that is destroyed by pasteurization, increases intestinal absorption of vitamin A, so the supplemental vitamin A in conventional milk may be harder to absorb. (6) While pasteurized milk does retain some level of nutritional value, it seems that unpasteurized milk is superior in vitamin and mineral content overall.
Many people experience digestive and other problems when they consume pasteurized milk, but have no trouble with raw milk. It’s not entirely clear why this is the case. The FDA insists that unpasteurized milk has no probiotic effect or any other characteristic that could explain this phenomenon. But the collective experience of raw milk consumers suggests otherwise. The Weston A. Price Foundation conducted an informal survey of over 700 families, and determined that over eighty percent of those diagnosed with lactose intolerance no longer suffer from symptoms after switching to raw milk. (7)
While this is certainly not rigorous evidence, it matches my own anecdotal experience and that of many of my patients, blog readers and radio show listeners. I do not feel well when eat pasteurized dairy. It gives me sinus congestion, headaches and intestinal discomfort. Yet I thrive on raw dairy, and fermented raw dairy in particular played a substantial role in my own healing journey.
Is it possible that the millions of people that tolerate raw milk but not pasteurized milk are experiencing a massive placebo effect? Sure. Anything is possible. But a likelier explanation is that raw milk has some quality that makes it easier to digest than pasteurized milk. The fact that this has not been proven in clinical research doesn’t make it untrue. Lack of proof is not proof against.
Fortunately, we shouldn’t have to wait long for more reliable evidence on this topic. A clinical study is currently being performed at Stanford University to help determine whether raw milk actually reduces the incidence of lactose intolerance. (8) The results have yet to be published, but will provide scientific evidence to support or refute the anecdotal claims of many raw milk drinkers.
There is substantial epidemiological evidence from studies in Europe that consumption of raw milk during childhood may protect against asthma, allergies and other immune-mediated diseases. A large cross-sectional study demonstrated a significant inverse association between “farm milk” consumption and childhood asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, sensitization to pollen and other allergens. (9) While we must always remember that correlation does not prove causation, the findings were consistent across children from farming and non-farming environments, indicating that farm milk consumption may have had an independent effect on allergy development.
This protective effect may be related to the hygiene hypothesis, which I recently wrote about. It is thought that low dose exposure to a variety of commensal bacteria may help regulate immune responses outside the gut. Another hypothesis is that the higher level of omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed dairy, particularly in full-fat dairy products, may help reduce childhood atopy risk. (10) More research is necessary before a definitive mechanism for a reduction in allergies in children drinking raw milk can be established.
Additionally, some research suggests that unpasteurized milk contains antimicrobial components absent in pasteurized milk. (11, 12, 13, 14) These studies found that pathogens grow more slowly or die more quickly when added to raw milk than when added to heat-treated milk. This does not mean that raw milk cannot be contaminated with bacteria, nor does it mean that raw milk “kills pathogens”. Rather, unpasteurized milk may be somewhat less susceptible to contamination than pasteurized milk due to its probiotic bacteria and antimicrobial enzymes. The evidence for this is not conclusive, however, so there is no excuse for subpar hygiene standards when dealing with unpasteurized dairy products.
Many people think that raw milk has a superior flavor and texture to pasteurized, homogenized milk. They often use words like “fresh”, “real”, “alive” and “rich” to describe it. They also appreciate the subtle shift in the flavor of the milk through the seasons as the grasses change. Consumer research demonstrates that flavor is one of the top reasons that consumers choose raw milk in states where it is legal to buy. (15, 16) Emily Weinstein, blogging for The New York Times, describes her first raw milk experience:
“The milk — oh man, the milk! — was creamy and full of flavors, not white like supermarket milk, but yellow-tinged. It was milk with a taste that wasn’t just defined by it texture — it was distinct, satisfying, delicious. All food should be like this, I thought, so natural it seems to redefine the word.”
I’m sure those of you who drink raw milk can attest to the significant flavor differences between raw and conventional milk. While flavor alone is not reason enough for choosing raw milk, it is clearly a driving force in many consumers’ decisions.
Raw milk is almost exclusively produced by local farmers. A growing segment of the population is choosing to support local, family farms and businesses over multi-national conglomerates. There is significant economic potential in the direct sales of milk from small farms, which is often the method of producing and distributing unpasteurized milk in most states. (17) The direct sale of raw milk allows farmers to set a price that allows profit for the farm and equals the fair market value of the product for the consumer. (18) This way, farmers are able to cover their costs while still earning a living to support themselves and their families. Consumers are reconnected with their food supply, and farmers are held accountable for their products, allowing for the stimulation of the local economy and the promotion of sustainable farming practices.
Similar to above, consuming milk that is produced by local farmers using sustainable methods has far less of an environmental impact than drinking milk produced in large confinement feeding operations thousands of miles away. Conventional dairy operations are highly destructive to the environment. Air and water pollution from dust and feedlot manure, plus fertilizers and pesticides used in grain production, are damaging to the environment and to the health of farmers, farm workers, and nearby residents. (19) Manure runoff into water can cause the death of aquatic life, as well as contamination of drinking water by nitrate, harmful microorganisms, and antibiotics and hormones.
Raising dairy cows on well-managed pastures decreases soil erosion, increases soil fertility, and improves water quality due to decreased pollution. Cows grazing on pasture reduce the energy needed to grow grains or to mow, bale, and move hay, requiring less fuel consumption. (20) Sustainable small dairy farms that produce raw milk are much more environmentally friendly as compared to typical large-scale dairy farms that are energy intensive.
Cows that live on small farms and spend their days on green pasture are are much better off than those that live in overcrowded and inhumane “factory farm” conditions. This is important to those of us that care how animals are treated. When confined in small spaces under stressful conditions, cows often become ill and are treated with large quantities of antibiotics. (21) They are more prone to morbidity and mortality from diseases including dust-related respiratory conditions, metabolic diseases, and other ailments that can be directly attributed to their confined conditions, as well as their unnatural diet of corn, soy, and other grains. Pasture-raised cows have longer lifespans than conventionally raised cows, as corn-based diets contribute to health problems such as liver abscesses, and breeding practices designed to maximize milk production have caused reproductive problems. (22)
There are plenty of horror stories and disturbing videos that portray the inhumane treatment of cows in conventional dairy operations. (23, 24) By visiting small farms and purchasing raw milk from pastured cows, compassionate consumers can be assured that the animals are properly treated.
A personal decision
Any one of these reasons might be enough justification for choosing raw milk for a given individual or family. But when viewed together, it’s easy to understand why raw milk consumption has increased so significantly over the last two decades. Consuming unpasteurized milk and dairy products has several positive benefits that, for many people, may outweigh the possible risks. You must consider both the positive and negative qualities of raw milk consumption when making the decision for you and your family.
In the next article, I will discuss the important variables to consider when deciding whether raw milk is right for you and offer guidance on how to find a safe source of raw milk and minimize the potential risk, should you choose to consume it.