Raw Milk Reality: Is Raw Milk Worth the Risk? | Chris Kresser

Raw Milk Reality: Is Raw Milk Worth the Risk?

by Chris Kresser

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In Is Raw Milk Dangerous, we examined the risk associated with drinking unpasteurized milk compared to the risk associated with consuming other foods, and with other activities such as driving a car. In Raw Milk Benefits, we covered some of the possible benefits of unpasteurized milk. In this article, I’m going to present a framework for determining whether raw milk is worth the risk for you and your family.

As I said in the first article, I’m not here to convince you to drink raw milk. I don’t work for a raw milk producer. I don’t make money promoting raw milk. I have nothing to gain if you decide to drink raw milk, nor do I have anything to lose if you choose not to.

This is a decision you have to make on your own, by weighing the risks vs. benefits and considering more personal variables such as your health status, risk tolerance, values and worldview. Every day we make choices that involve this kind of evaluation, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Each time we get into a car, for example, we are deciding that the convenience and efficiency driving offers is worth the risk of injury or death. We may not consider the decision in these terms – because we’re so accustomed to driving – but that doesn’t mean the risk isn’t real and we aren’t making a choice.

With that in mind, let’s discuss a few of the factors you might consider in your decision.

Are dairy products even necessary?

In a word: no. Humans have only consumed dairy products for a short period of our evolutionary history, and we thrived without them. No one suffers from “dairy deficiency”.

That said, I do believe dairy products can be beneficial when they’re well-tolerated. Several epidemiological studies have linked dairy consumption (especially full-fat dairy) with positive health outcomes. (1) While this does not prove causality, we also know that dairy contains healthful nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins, calcium, and conjugated linoleic acid (natural trans-fat), some of which can be difficult to obtain elsewhere in the diet.

Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir can be particularly beneficial, especially for those with gut issues.

And we don’t eat only for health. We also eat for pleasure. Dairy is one of the most popular food categories around the world, equally beloved by people of all ages, ethnicities and walks of life. We have sayings like “butter makes everything better” and “crème de la crème” for a reason!

Do you tolerate pasteurized milk?

If you tolerate pasteurized dairy, and you’re concerned about the risk associated with raw milk, you might try to find a small, local dairy with grass-fed cows that uses vat or low temperature pasteurization. In contrast to the ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurization process used by large commercial dairies, vat pasteurization heats the milk to a lower temperature (145 degrees) for a longer period of time (30 minutes) and then cools it as quickly as possible. Proponents of vat pasteurization say that it tastes better than milk pasteurized with high temps, and it seems reasonable to assume that the nutrient loss would be less (although I haven’t seen any data on this).

An additional benefit of these small dairies is that many don’t homogenize their milk. As Cynthia pointed out in a recent comment, homogenization squeezes large casein micelle complexes through small pores to break them up. The micelles are held together by calcium phosphate. When the micelles are broken up in homogenization, the fats are exposed to calcium, which forms calcium soaps (“saponification”). Calcium soaps not only irritate the gut and make it leaky, but also decrease the absorption of protein, vitamins and minerals. (2, 3)

A similar option is purchasing raw milk, and then pasteurizing it at home. You can do this with a home pasteurization machine, or with your stovetop using the low-temperature method I described above. Click here for instructions.

However, even those that “tolerate” pasteurized dairy often find that they feel much better drinking unpasteurized milk. And of course if you’re one of the many  people that doesn’t do well with pasteurized milk products, raw milk is your only option if you wish to consume dairy.

Are you elderly, pregnant, immunocompromised or do you have young children?

In Is Raw Milk Dangerous I presented data indicating that the risk of developing a serious illness (requiring hospitalization) from drinking unpasteurized milk is very low: less than one in a million. I also pointed out that other foods like fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, and beef are far more likely to cause illness than dairy products, even when adjusted for consumption.

That said, there is a risk of serious illness associated with drinking unpasteurized milk. And it’s important to note that this risk is more heavily weighted toward young children (under 3-4 years old), pregnant women, the elderly and those with less developed or compromised immune systems.

These illnesses can be severe. For example, in a recent outbreak in Oregon, a toddler and two young teens were hospitalized after drinking raw milk contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, one of the most virulent foodborne pathogens. Two of them had hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure. In another outbreak involving E. coli 0157:H7 this year in Missouri, two were hospitalized, including a two-year old with HUS.

On the other hand, it could be argued that growing children, pregnant women and people with under-functioning immune systems have the most to gain from the benefits of raw milk. This is illustrated by a comment from a reader on the last post in this series. He recently had an intestinal transplant (both small and large) and is taking powerful immunosuppressant medication, which would certainly place him in the “immunocompromised” category. Yet he feels that unpasteurized milk has been a significant factor in his unusually speedy recovery. He is the only recipient of the transplant that he’s aware of that hasn’t returned to the hospital with sepsis and systemic infection. Shortly after the surgery, he attempted to drink pasteurized milk and got severe cramps and diarrhea and lost 10 pounds. Yet in spite of his doctor’s warning that he’d never be able to tolerate dairy (because all intestinal and multivisceral tranplant recipients become lactose intolerant), he has thrived on raw milk.

A story like this doesn’t prove that unpasteurized milk had anything to do with his recovery. But I’ve read about and heard from many people who’ve had similar – albeit less dramatic – experiences, and I also feel that raw milk kefir was a crucial factor in my own healing process. And as we discussed in Raw Milk Benefits, there is substantial epidemiological evidence that children that consume raw milk may be protected against asthma and allergic diseases.

What is your risk tolerance? And what is important to you?

The extremely small risk of developing a serious illness is enough to turn some people off to raw milk. That is a perfectly valid choice.

Others feel so much better when they drink unpasteurized milk that they’re willing to take the risk. Or perhaps they love dairy, but can’t tolerate pasteurized milk. Or maybe they’re a “foodie” and they simply prefer the taste of raw milk to pasteurized milk.

Each day we make choices, and take risks. We’re more aware of some than others. We are hundreds of times more likely to die in a car crash than develop a serious illness from drinking unpasteurized milk, yet that doesn’t stop us from driving (by ourselves or with our children). Some may argue that driving is a necessity, while drinking raw milk is optional. I would argue that both activities are optional, and whether we choose to do one or the other is simply a reflection of our priorities and preferences.

Summary

Two good alternatives to raw milk that I mentioned above are finding a small, local dairy with grass-fed cows that uses vat pasteurization and preferably doesn’t homogenize their milk, and purchasing raw milk and pasteurizing it at home.

These may be ideal solutions for those that are concerned about risk, but have no problem digesting pasteurized milk.

If you don’t tolerate pasteurized milk, or choose to drink raw milk for any other reason, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk. That will be the subject of the final article in the series.

Now I’d like to hear from you. After reading this series, do you think raw milk is worth the risk? Why or why not? Please leave your vote and comment below.

163 Comments

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  1. There may be another reason why people are intolerant to dairy products that people aren’t aware of.

    People should be aware that there are different milk proteins and that one produces a toxic product of milk called BMC-7. This impacts the health very negatively according to studies.

    There are two types of milk protein. A1 beta casein and A2 beta casein. A1 milk protein produces the BMC-7 protein fragment. Many people who think their lactose intolerant are actually intolerant to A1 milk protein.

    The fat portion of the milk like heavy cream does not contain hardly any milk protein so not a problem. For a while, I was puzzled when I made clam chowder and did not get a reaction while I got reaction from milk.

    Most milk in western world is A1 milk so toxic milk dominates.

    Jersey and Guernsey cows are mostly A2 milk but they need to be verified. I can only drink A2 milk protein. Only one company certifies their milk as A2.

    The highest quality milk would be milk that is unpasteurized, A2 milk and non-homogenized. Unless it is A2 milk, I can’t drink it.

  2. Hey peeps. This is copy-paste of my response on another site, so it might look like I’m for some reason advertising raw milk.
    Let me share my experience with raw milk. I live in Croatia and I’ve been ignoring these raw milk vending machines that sprawl on every corner these days. One day we had no choice but to buy it because we needed it and it was Sunday and wife was making a cake. I reluctantly let her talk me into trying it (I’m quite visual and suggestive so I was imagining cows, farm shit and whatnot and was quite sure I was going to throw up the second I sniff it). Lo and behold, it was freaking delicious, super cold because it needs to be to keep it fresh, It tastes like cream, almost sweet cream, with no “artefacts” or “alien” tastes whatsoever. It was approx. 2 years ago. From that very day until now, I’ve been consuming 2 litres of that milk EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s so good I just need to have it. And price is ridiculous for a healthy product of such consistent quality: less than 1 USD per litre. Now, for the benefits I noticed. Definite reduction in colds. When I say definite it’s like 50-75% reduction. One winter I didn’t catch cold at all, which never happened. My child had terrible cold lately, leaving her snorts everywhere including my face of course, mixing the viruses with us and I was sure we were going the same path – nothing. I need to clarify I’m on this page because I Googled it if it might have something to do with raw milk drinking – turns out it very well could. Up until now I thought it was C vitamin supplement I was taking, but I took it before and never noticed any change. Do I have side effects from 2 years on 2 liters of raw milk per day? Sure, occasionally I contribute to green house effect with really, really good fart. Sorry planet. But it’s nothing to do with milk being raw. If anything, commercial pasteurized variants are far worse in that matter because they lack enzimes needed to digest lactose. From 2 litres of that crap per day I’d probably have regular diarrhea. Sorry for being honest and perhaps vivid. Just can’t believe there are people who believe bullshit they’re being fed by TV and other media. The longest living populations on Earth are surviving, no, thriving almost exclusively on raw milk and its derivates, now all of a sudden white jism in plastic containers are better for us. Let’s get back to roots. And healthy farts.

  3. Hello, this comment is for anyone who can answer please. I’ve read some of the comments about feeding children, so I wanted to ask about my 14 month old daughter. She’s been breastfed since birth and of course eats food noe, but I’d like to drop feedings. I would like to know what would be the optimal drink to give her ? I would like tomhave her weaned by 2 years old by dropping all night feedings, then most of the day leaving morning and evening, then down to just before bed. I know she’s not an infant anymore so that maybe I shouldn’t worry about homemade formula, however I’m uncomfortable with giving her raw milk. I’m also uncomfortable with giving her regular milk! And someone commented saying thst goat’s milk doesn’t have any fat, I would like to see some articles about this. I was thinking of just giving her goat’s milk but she is off the chart in weight (too “skinny”) so we need to “fatten” her up a bit. Also if anyone can recommend specific foods that I should be giving her that would help her gain weight?
    Thanks in advance.

  4. I have been raised on dairy farm producing milk. I do still to this day love to drink right out of the bulk tank straight from the teat cooled to my prefered temperature of under 35 degrees and still above freezing. Coolest part its not water with white color and i can drink it and its breakfast. Add cerial and its adds minerals that is not in raw milk. It has not killed me to today and crave it. I have not been a avid doctor affiliate but for a few stitches and a broken wrist. All my original teeth still in my head no fillings or cavities and been to the dentist twice in my life. It does the body good. I believe that once it is heated the pasturization it actually takes a way from the benefeits and makes the benefeits weak. If it is all up to the gov it makes you spend more for pills than whats in front of you. Give the gov the benefeit of the doubt and by the sacraligious pills and drugs they advertise on tv every day and listen to the side affects and its still legal. What is the side effects of raw milk? The shits because of to much of a overdose of what your body needs left side of missing a human breast nipple. Formula any one? Its not a race either.

  5. Dear Chris, I know this thread is old, but it still generates a lot of traffic. One question I see that has come up from readers is, what exactly should a consumer look for in a farm when considering a raw milk? What safety practices are important, and what questions should be asked? Its a great question, and one that is not easy to answer since raw milk standards are all over the board, or non-existence. Public health has been slow to suggest best practices or risk-reduction methods for raw milk, and rather just recommends that raw milk be universally avoided, ignoring the public demand.

    However, there is a growing movement among raw milk producers to define good practices and put forth science-based risk managment plans. I would recommend that you contact Dr. Cat Berge, board member of The Raw MIlk Institute, http://www.rawmilkinstitute.net. She is an expert on this subject and would be able to suggest some very practical marks of a responsible raw milk producer. That information could be very helpful to readers here if it were made available.

  6. hello Chris, i am thinking of making homemade formula for my baby. I found a link to a recipe on the Whole 30 site but i am a bit sceptical about using raw milk. it is not readily available and the recipe (Weston Foundation) calls for raw milk. I am thinking of boiling the raw milk but i worry about destroying the benefits. i could maybe use organic milk (less expensive) but finding milk from grass fed cows is also tricky. have you got any advice?

    • Enya, homemade baby formula is a great option. My adopted daughter thrived on the formula recipe from WAPF (although she actually did better on the meat recipe than the milk.)

      That said, you do NOT have to use raw milk for your baby formula. You can use store purchased pasteurized, or home pasteurized raw milk from a farm. My suggestion is to find the highest quality milk possible. Organic, Non-homegenized, from grass-fed cows if possible. If that best-quality milk comes raw, I would home pasteurized first. You need not boil the milk, but rather heat it to 160 degrees for 30 seconds. Low temp home pasteurization will kill pathogens, but it will not fully denature proteins like high-temp commercial pasteurization. Here’s how to do it:

      Heat your milk and gelatin together as per the recipe. Use a thermometer and stir and watch carefully until it reaches 160 degrees. It will only take a couple minutes. Set aside.

      Place all your other ingredients in your blender, except the water. Add the cold water to your heated milk to cool it down. Then add to your blender and blend. Voila.

      If you MUST use raw milk, then please source it only from a farm that conforms to the high safety standards of The Raw Milk Institute. http://www.rawmilkinstitute.net. If a farm is not praciticing strict science-based sanitation standards, including regular milk testing, forget it. Babies can die from drinking raw milk that is contaminated with pathogens.

      I am a raw milk producer, by the way. I love raw milk, but I also understand risk.

      • thanks for all that information. i am thinking of using homogenized organic milk from grass fed cows. i will try the homemade formula if i can find all the ingredients.

        • Sounds like a good plan Enya. Sometimes we have to make the best plan based on what foods are practically available where we live! As for the many other ingredients in the formula, you can find most of them on Amazon. Some ingredients like the sunflower oil, coconut oil, olive oil may be available for less money at your local natural foods store. And http://www.radiantlifecatalog.com sells all the ingredients in a kit. The most expensive item can be the probiotics because they have to be shipped on ice overnight. I saved a lot of money on the probiotics by ordering them through my local health food store where they arrived on a refrigeration truck with no extra shipping. Also the whey can be made from any plain, organic yogurt. Just drain it through a two-ply cheese cloth. Best of luck!

      • Breast feeding would be the best option instead of making your own baby formula…….why would you go to extreme trouble of making formula when best nutritional content would be found in breast milk. There is even breast milk now available to purchase.

    • Hello,

      Just my two cents, I have 6 children. My youngest was premature and (for many reasons) the only one I was unable to nurse. I fed her the WP homemade formula with RAW milk. She is 2.5 yrs now. I have been so grateful to find a recipe that was beneficial to her health. She is strong, intelligent, and very physically adept.

      I also feel that when making the formula and adding probiotics and coconut oil, it may help lessen negative bacteria that may be present in the milk.

      Good luck!

      • Ondreea, your experience is not uncommon, and I too have been very grateful for the wonderful WP formula recipe. My baby just turned 3 and she’s so healthy. I know many babies who have thrived on raw milk formula, even with milk obtained from farms without science-based safety standards. I’m glad that was your experience.

        But knowing what I do as a raw milk farmer, I would be remiss not to point out that any raw milk fit for human consumption, and particularly for consumption by infants, should never contain “negative” bacteria. Pathogens like E coli 0157h7 or Campylobacter orginate in cow feces. Raw milk produced under sanitary conditions should should not contain these pathogens. If you are concerned that your raw milk may contain pathogens, please do not count on coconut oil or probiotics to remedy the problem. E coli 0157h7, while rare, is very, very virulent. As few as 10 micro-organisms can result in an illness.

        There is no excuse for raw milk containing “negative” bacteria. Raw milk must be produced in a way that avoids contamination through clean farm conditions and santitary milk collection processes. It must be cooled to under 40 degrees in less than an hour and kept cold. And farmers need to be monitoring their sanitation plan regularly with coliform and SPC milk testing, and be able to discuss their risk managment plan with customers.

    • Almost all infant mammals, including humans, will thrive on goat’s milk. Easier, and probably safer, than trying to make your own formula. 🙂

      • Hello, Anna. I used goats milk for both my other kids after breast feeding for 1.3/5 years. I am led to believe it does not contain enough fat or in some way is not ideal for children.

  7. I was wondering if anyone knows if you can use pasteurized milk and turn it into just as healthy a milk as raw milk by making it into kefir?

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