Raw milk — straight from the cow, sheep, or goat — is enjoying widespread popularity of late, but some health experts are warning loudly against pouring yourself a glass.
Pasteurization of animal milk has been widely adopted as a basic public health measure — the fresh stuff is heated up to high temperatures in order to kill harmful microbes before going on sale, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Self-proclaimed health experts and wellness influencers pooh-pooh the process, insisting in countless social media posts — the #RawMilk tag boasts 22.6 million views, to date — that Louis Pasteur’s invention saps nutrients and exacerbates issues like lactose intolerance and eczema.
“Yes, [pasteurization] does kill off some of the existing beneficial bacteria in milk, but it doesn’t make it ‘dead milk’ or strip it of all of its nutritional properties. It’s one of the most nutrient-rich foods in existence,” Brian St. Pierre, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at Precision Nutrition, told Men’s Health.
“Pasteurization dramatically decreases the bacterial content of milk to decrease foodborne illness,” St. Pierre said.
Pasteurized milk is still rich in protein and full of calcium, vitamin D, and many other vital nutrients while remaining relatively cheap, well-studied, and widely available.
“We’re seeing this a lot post-pandemic, people turning to ‘local’ or ‘natural’ — I’m using air quotes — foods,” Nicole Helen Martin, a dairy microbiologist at Cornell University, told the New York Times.
“The claim that these components are ‘destroyed’ by pasteurization is simply untrue,” she said.
While 20 states still prohibit raw milk sales in some form, a growing number of state legislations are revisiting the raw milk debate — Iowa legalized the sale last summer, while Illinois re-upped a bill to expand sales this month.
Throughout the milking process, germs can get mixed in with milk at many different points, as they linger everywhere from the cow’s udders to the farmer’s hands.
Unpasteurized milk can harbor bacteria that cause common food-borne illnesses — such as salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and E. coli — and lead to nausea, vomiting, fever, body aches, and kidney failure.
Most healthy people recover within a few days or weeks, but it could be deadly for some — especially elderly adults, young children and pregnant women.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “most public health professionals and health care providers consider pasteurization to be one of public health’s most effective food safety interventions ever.”
And while just 1% of Americans are estimated to be drinking raw milk, experts are worried about the potential public health risk.
Between 1998 and 2018, 2,645 people were sickened, 228 were hospitalized and three people died from illnesses associated with raw milk, the CDC reported, noting a rise in cases correlating with loosened regulations in recent years.
While some research does show correlations between raw dairy consumption and improved allergies, immune function, and gut health, the experts warn that it must be balanced with the risks of raw food.
“There are people who say, ‘I’ve been drinking raw milk my whole life,’” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of pediatrics, infectious diseases and epidemiology at Stanford Medicine, told the NY Times.
“Well, yeah, you can also drive around without a seatbelt or ride your motorcycle without a helmet.” That doesn’t make it safe,” she said.