The Shocking Truth About Raw Milk and Pasteurization

January 7th, 2010

Despite dairy being a major staple of the modern diet and often being promoted as an excellent source of nutrition, it’s also one of the most common sources of food sensitivities and is associated with many disorders and diseases. However, as with most foods, there’s a significant amount of variation in the quality of milk, and this is a critical factor to consider.

More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of medicine, promoted the healing effects of milk. Since then, many doctors have continued to do the same. Milk is essential to the survival and development of baby mammals, including humans, and even the adult members of traditional tribes such as the Masai and Samburu continue to thrive on significant amounts of it. In addition, anecdotal evidence as well as published research supports its numerous health benefits. If this is the case, then how can milk be associated with so many health problems? One of the most compelling reasons is the difference between pasteurized milk and raw milk. However, to understand why pasteurization is not the great idea that it’s widely believed to be and why it destroys many of milk’s inherent health benefits, it’s necessary to consider the history of milk and the politics behind pasteurization.

How Alcohol Influenced the Need for Pasteurization

In the early 1800s and continuing into the early 1900s, as the populations of major cities in America increased, so did the demand for whiskey and milk. At the same time, the amount of land available for dairy farming was also decreasing. This encouraged the practice of housing dairy cattle in whiskey distilleries and feeding them the grain based waste product of distillation, also known as distillery slop. This feed was so poor in quality that the cattle it was fed to often became diseased and emaciated, but when fed in large amounts, it promoted abundant milk production. Commonly referred to as slop milk or swill milk, this milk was so poor in quality that butter and cheese couldn’t be made from it. In addition, because of its thinness and pale bluish color, additives such as sugar, starch, flour, and chalk were used to improve its taste and appearance.

The conditions of distillery cattle pens were even worse than those of modern day factory farms. The cattle were tied to the same spot for their entire lives which rarely lasted longer than 9 months. This is just a fraction of their typical 12 to 15 year lifespan and was a result of the rapid development and spread of disease caused by inadequate nutrition and unsanitary conditions.

Around the time that swill milk became popular, infant mortality and tuberculosis became much more prevalent. Although it was eventually determined that swill milk was an unlikely source of the tuberculosis pathogen that infected humans, the poor quality of the milk certainly didn’t help one’s immune system fight it, and there was still good reason to believe that swill milk was associated with the increased mortality of young children. This is what eventually prompted the need for pasteurization, but it’s critically important to realize that this perceived need was nothing more than a compensation for the seriously flawed dairy farming practices that compromised the health of cattle and the quality of their milk. In fact, it was widely accepted at the time that raw milk from healthy cattle was safe, and nearly all proponents of pasteurization supported the availability of it as long as it was certified.

The Disadvantages of Pasteurization

Pasteurization was invented by Louis Pasteur in the 1800s and is a process that exposes raw milk to high temperatures for a short duration to destroy pathogens. Unfortunately, it also destroys many of the desirable nutrients and microorganisms that give milk its health promoting benefits. In particular, pasteurization destroys enzymes that contribute to immunity as well as the digestive enzymes needed to digest and assimilate milk’s nutrients. In fact, the test for successful pasteurization is the complete destruction of the enzyme phosphatase. One of the enzymes inactivated by pasteurization is lactase which breaks down the milk sugar lactose. The destruction of this enzyme is an important factor in the high prevalence of lactose intolerance. Pasteurization also destroys a significant amount of the vitamin content in milk including vitamins C, B6, and B12, and it alters the chemical state and absorption of calcium and other minerals.

Another criticism of pasteurization, aside from the fact that it promotes undesirable farming practices, is that it prioritizes the sterilization of milk above the resistance of the person drinking it. One of the important functions of milk is to transfer immunity from mother to baby, and not only does this include the existence of immune supporting compounds, but also the pathogens that cause the initiation of an immune response and the development of antibodies. Pasteurization greatly compromises both of these benefits. While it’s certainly a smart idea to pasteurize low quality milk to reduce the excessive quantity of pathogens, this doesn’t mean that the natural pathogen levels of properly produced raw milk are inherently dangerous. In reality, it’s actually a benefit.

Modern research associates pasteurized milk with a number of allergies and illnesses including asthma, bronchitis, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, musculoskeletal pain, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gherig’s disease, and even antisocial and aggressive behavior. One study even found that young criminals drank almost 10 times as much milk as the control group which isn’t really that surprising considering the effects diet can have on character. In many cases, when milk is removed from the diet, these problems subside or completely disappear. This is a significant concern considering that dairy is a staple of the modern diet, and it’s unfortunate that this type of research doesn’t differentiate between pasteurized milk and raw milk.

The Germ Theory and Why Pasteurization is a Poor Solution

Louis Pasteur, the inventor of pasteurization, is well known for his germ theory which attributes the cause of illness and disease to pathogens. This theory is very much alive and well today and continues to be the basis of modern medicine. Despite the popularity of Pasteur’s theory, a well respected scientist of the same era named Claude Bernard disagreed with him. Bernard believed that the “terrain”, which can be interpreted to mean the level of one’s health or physiological function, particularly in regard to the immune system and the balance of intestinal flora, to be the primary factor in preventing illness and disease. This theory is a major basis of the natural health movement and is even starting to gain support from conventional medicine. Despite the overwhelming popularity of Pasteur’s germ theory and the influence it has had on our society, many sources claim that shortly prior to Pasteur’s death, he admitted that Bernard was right and that the “terrain” is indeed everything.

The germ theory, along with pasteurization, promotes an unrealistic ideal of eliminating foreign microorganisms. About 90 percent of the cells in the human body are that of foreign bacteria, and in just the intestines alone, there exists an estimated 6 pounds of beneficial bacteria which contribute to digestion, immunity, detoxification, and a number of other important functions. It’s obvious that human health depends on a symbiotic relationship with these foreign microorganisms, but pasteurization and modern medicine’s support of the germ theory directly contradict this. Granted, there are instances when the immune system is overwhelmed with harmful pathogens and intervention is necessary, but in reality, the excessive attempts to sterilize our food and environment are mostly a compensation for compromised health and the poor food quality that results from bad farming practices.

Unhealthy Cows Produce Unhealthy Milk

A cow’s health is largely determined by its diet, and the nutritional quality of a cow’s milk is determined by the health of the cow. Therefore, the nutritional quality and healthfulness of milk depends on the diet of the cow that produces it. Cows naturally graze on grass, but most modern dairy cattle are fed grain and soy. Even worse, factory farmers feed their cattle bakery waste, citrus peels loaded with pesticides, and other items that barely resemble food. These unnatural diets greatly compromise the health of the cattle, and in turn, the quality of the milk that they produce. Furthermore, modern dairy cattle are often fed antibiotics on a regular basis to compensate for their poor health and susceptibility to illness, and some are also fed hormones to increase their milk production. Some dairy producers are even reviving swill milk by feeding their cattle the waste products of ethanol production. As a result of all this, modern dairy cattle generally live only about a quarter of their typical lifespan, and although these issues have been understood for more than 160 years, feeding dairy cattle an unnatural and poor quality diet continues to be the industry standard.

A common outcome of the poor conditions that dairy cattle are raised in is an infection of the mammary glands called mastitis. It’s estimated that 40% of all dairy cows in the United States have this infection, and the ones that do often secrete pus into their milk. This is identified by high counts of somatic cells, and according to the State and Federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, milk can contain a somatic cell count as high as 750,000 per milliliter prior to pasteurization. In contrast, raw milk from a healthy and properly raised cow typically contains a somatic cell count of 50,000 per milliliter or less.

Another common illness which results from the poor conditions in which most dairy cattle are raised is paratuberculosis, and similar to mastitis, it’s estimated to affect 40% of American cattle. Paratuberculosis is believed to be pathogenic to humans as well as cattle and has been identified as a possible cause of Crohn’s disease. The beneficial bacteria that exists in raw milk from healthy cattle can naturally inhibit pathogens like this and provide resistance to them, but ironically, these bacteria are destroyed by pasteurization while the pathogen that causes paratuberculosis survives it.

Why Raw Milk from Pasture Raised Cattle is Superior

Modern dairy cows are forced to produce as much as 17,000 pounds of milk per cycle which is 20 times more than what’s needed to sustain a healthy calf. Because cows transfer a fixed amount of vitamins into their milk, this has the effect of diluting its nutritional quality. This especially applies with vitamin E and beta-carotene. Pasture raised cattle generally aren’t pushed to this extent and their milk therefore contains more vitamins. The dairy industry’s solution to this is to fortify the diluted milk with calcium and synthetic vitamins which are poorly absorbed and can sometimes have toxic effects.

Cattle that naturally graze on pasture produce milk with higher concentrations of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, and K2 which the work of Dr. Weston A. Price has shown to be critical to excellent health. Milk from pastured cattle also contains higher amounts conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is believed to help fight cancer and prevent excessive weight gain. Finally, pasture fed cattle produce milk with a much healthier balance of essential fatty acids while the milk from grain fed cattle tends to be excessively high in omega 6 fatty acids which is an imbalance that promotes inflammation and has been associated with cancer and heart disease.

One of the most dangerous effects of feeding grain to cattle is that it causes their digestive tract to become more acidic which increases pathogen resistance. This is particularly the case with E. coli, and there are now strains of it that are resistant to the stomach acid of humans which normally kills it.

In addition to the higher quality of meat and milk that results, raising cattle on pasture is also much better for the environment because it eliminates the need for the grain and soy crops that are used to manufacture feed. More importantly, cattle manure is a natural fertilizer for the very same pastures that they graze on, but when they’re deprived of frequent opportunities to graze, their manure becomes a massive source of pollution, especially if it contains pathogens and chemical residues which is typically the case.

Why Organic Isn’t Good Enough

Even when certified by the USDA, organic food can be of poor quality, and this is especially the case with milk. Although policy changes are underway, the USDA requirements for organic certification are extremely vague in regard to how often cattle should graze on pasture. As such, many cattle that produce certified organic milk are confined to a feed lot most of the time and are fed grains. Although the grains are organic, this unnatural diet still compromises the health of the cattle and the quality of their milk. Horizon Organic, one of the most popular brands of organic milk, has been criticized many times for such practices. With large dairy operations cutting corners like this and pressure from major retailers like Walmart practically making it mandatory, it’s very difficult for honest dairy farmers to follow sound and natural farming practices and still make a profit.

In addition, many organic brands are ultrapasteurized which means that the milk is exposed to higher temperatures, but for a shorter duration. Ultrapasteurization destroys more nutrients than regular pasteurization, and the milk that results can last up to 6 months without being refrigerated. Since people would be less likely to buy ultrapasteurized milk if they knew this, stores refrigerate it anyway. Even without the residues of antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals, it’s arguable that ultrapasteurized organic milk is even less nutritious than conventional pasteurized milk.

The Politics Behind Pasteurization

Within the last thirty years, legislation has banned the retail sale of raw milk in most states and only allows it to be purchased directly at certified farms. Some states don’t allow it to be sold at all. The FDA asserts that raw milk is inherently dangerous, but evidence suggests otherwise. Furthermore, who is the FDA protecting by discouraging the legal sale of raw milk, us or the dairy industry? As we’ve seen from their interactions with the drug industry, the FDA isn’t very deserving of our trust.

Government policies, laws, and regulations on milk sales and pricing have reduced the number of dairy farms in America from approximately four million in 1950 to just over one hundred thousand in 2000. Meanwhile, the dairy industry has spent decades investing in propaganda and political lobbying that has left much of modern society, including many politicians, believing that raw milk is inherently dangerous. Unfortunately, it’s harder than ever for a small dairy farmer to survive, especially if they wish to embrace natural farming practices and sell raw milk. Despite the growing consumer demand for this, state and federal government agencies have gone out of their way to make it excessively difficult for raw dairy farmers to stay in business.

It seems obvious that this is more a result of political lobbying from the dairy industry than the concern for truth and public health that should drive political decisions. The dairy industry has two major incentives to do this. First, the nutritional superiority of raw milk presents a threatening potential for competition that they don’t want, and second, pasteurization allows large dairy farmers to get away with the industrialized farming practices that greatly increase profit at the cost of quality and the environment.

Proponents of pasteurization will reference research that shows the supposed benefits of pasteurized milk and the disadvantages of raw milk, but similar to the drug industry’s influence on research, many academic researchers who conduct studies on milk and promote pasteurization have financial ties to the dairy industry. In addition, because the dairy industry also funds many of the research journals that publish this research, it’s politically dangerous for a researcher to oppose the overwhelming bias for pasteurization. As a result, most modern nutritional recommendations are based more on politics than good science and common sense.

A Closer Look at the Safety of Raw Milk

Raw milk contains enzymes and beneficial bacteria that help to destroy pathogens. It also contains immune cells which can also destroy pathogens in addition to transferring immunity and producing antibodies. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that raw milk has been shown to be inhospitable to the growth of pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes which are some of the very same pathogens that pasteurization is used to destroy. It’s unfortunate and ironic that some types of harmful pathogens can survive pasteurization while many of the natural ingredients in milk that can provide protection against them are destroyed. In addition, the proliferation of such pathogens is usually caused by the poor dairy farming practices that pasteurization compensates for.

In reality, it’s much more likely to develop a food borne illness from other common foods such as meat and vegetables than it is from raw milk, but these other foods aren’t subjected to the excessive amount of scrutiny that raw milk is. For example, on a per serving basis, illness from the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes is estimated to be 10 times more likely to result from deli meats than raw milk, but nobody is warned about such a danger, and it’s certainly much easier to purchase deli meat than raw milk.

It’s estimated from CDC data that you’d have to drink more than 3 million glasses of raw milk before you might expect to contract an illness of any kind from it, and according to data on the incidence of illness caused by raw milk, you’re more than 25 times as likely to get sick from other foods. Raw milk causes about 60 cases of illness per year, which may very well be exaggerated, and is only 0.01% of the estimated 500,000 raw milk drinkers in America. In contrast, the rate of illness from other foods is 25%, or 76 million cases in a population of about 300 million.

Many years ago, contamination of raw milk from the farmer or the milking equipment was a legitimate concern, but these issues have been eliminated by closed system milking equipment and strict sanitation regulations. I can appreciate the fact that pasteurization makes milk available to those who might not be able to afford it otherwise, but based on the compromised nutritional quality of pasteurized milk and the many health issues that have been associated with it, is it really worth it? Either way, there’s really no good reason why the government should restrict people from making their own choices about purchasing and consuming raw milk. After all, who is the government really protecting, us or the dairy industry?

Another concern that applies to both raw milk and pasteurized milk is whether or not it contains A1 beta casein. Several thousand years ago, a genetic mutation in some breeds of cattle has resulted in their production of A1 beta-casein which has been associated with autism, heart disease, and type 1 diabetes. Fortunately, some breeds of cattle don’t produce this type of casein, but most American breeds do. To minimize this risk, it’s best to get milk from Jersey or Guernsey cows, or even better, drink goat’s milk instead.

Raw Milk Resources

Despite how difficult the government has made it to purchase raw milk and how few raw dairy farmers remain, it’s still possible to get it if you’re willing to go out of your way. The Weston A. Price Foundation has created the website RealMilk.com which is an excellent resource on raw milk and lists by state the places where you can purchase it.

For more information on milk in general, I highly recommend reading The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Shmid ND. This book provides a fascinating recap of Milk’s history, an unsettling account of the politics behind pasteurization, and most importantly, a compelling case for the benefits of raw milk.

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