Personal Raw Milk Controversy Resolved

Having lived in two of the states where raw milk is legal (PA and WA) and being into the whole health idea, the controversy had not escaped my notice. I tried raw milk and it tastes awesome. So awesome that drinking regular milk seems pretty lame. But taste alone is not enough to make a food safer or more nutritious. I think that a lot of things that are better for you do happen to have more flavor, but they do not always have to go together.

Enter intense increase in cost and a lot of information from raw-milkers saying pasteurizing milk is crazy and pro-pasteurization folks saying that raw-milkers are crazy. “Personally,” I think to myself, “I’d like to drink raw milk because of its taste, but I’m not really willing to compromise my heath or my savings for that flavor.” The intense emotions surrounding the controversy and serious cost considerations conflicting with personal desires is the perfect recipe for me to throw it all to the wind and look for some good primary sources documenting what the hell is going on. I’ll get science to help me resolve my personal controversy.

So, for this research, I’m not interested in people’s desperate cries to think of the children or importance of buying local or killing people’s immune systems. No cries. I’m not interest in flavor blossoms or cheeses. I’m interested in the cold, raw facts. Once I have those, I will form my opinions and make my decisions.

Note: I am not a professional scientist. When reading scientific studies, I will often read only the abstract and conclusions unless something is unclear or I recognize as questionable. Generally, my go to for finding my studies is using “nih” (National Institutes of Health) as a search term. I am also not shy to use meta-analysis studies for my information.

Here’s what I discovered:

Although people can get sick an die from either, there is a significantly higher association with raw milk and disease, sometimes ending in death, than with pasteurized milk and disease [1][2][3].

The following is likely, based on one meta-analysis: there is a loss of the trace amounts vitamins B12, E, and B1, and folate found in raw milk. There is an increase in vitamin A. Further analysis is needed to discover the losses of vitamin B2, which is a nutrient significantly present in milk. There is no decrease in vitamin B6. There may be that raw milk has a “protective association with allergy development.” [3]

Raw milk does not reduce lactose-intolerance. [3] [5]

There is no association with raw milk and cancer. [3] [4]

At this point, one may think, “Well, little is lost in the pasteurization process and the few things that are could be gotten through supplements. And it saves lives.” Despite the fact that I think micronutrients are better received and absorbed in whole foods than as supplements, the evidence so far nonetheless would be plenty compelling enough for me to opt for pasteurized milk. Except that I still had questions. Mainly, “What is going on with these animals that their milk is so dangerous? Is it just part of their biology or part of their environment?” and “What in the milk is causing the diseases that can cause death? Can it be isolated and destroyed rather than pasteurizing the whole thing?” With that in mind, I was not satisfied yet with the information I’d gotten so far.

Then, I found a low down on the microbiota in raw milk. I had to look up a lot of words reading this review [4]. But I did it, and it filled in some gaps for me:

There are a lot of bacteria in raw milk. A lot of it is meaningless (unless you’re looking for flavor and making some cheese). A good bit of it is very beneficial to your health (probiotics). And some of it is dangerous and can causes diseases. The stuff that is beneficial to your health is lost in pasteurization. The stuff that hurts you can be filed into two categories (some bacteria are in both):

  1. The kind who’s effects can make it through or can happen after pasteurization.
  2. The kind that is there because the cows get sick (poor maintenance) or because it gets in due to bad sanitary conditions (poor maintenance).

Additionally, the “bad bacteria” can be tested for, in many cases, inexpensively.

“Despite the beneficial impact of many milk-associated microorganisms from flavor, technological or health-related perspective, it is clear that there can be significant risks associated with the consumption of raw milk and raw milk-derived products or, more specifically, of the pathogens that can be found therein. While many of these microorganisms gain entry to the milk from equipment and/or personnel, zoonotic pathogens can also be introduced into milk from unhealthy animals. As a consequence of this risk, pasteurization or other treatments are employed to remove disease-causing microorganisms.” [4]

This points to a reason for all these diseases in raw milk that must be burned away lest we may die: sick cows and dirty milking.

My opinions:

After I was done with cold, raw facting, I admit, I became annoyed. Pasteurization can make milk less dangerous, sure, but raw milk does not have to be dangerous in the first place. Pasteurization allows milk to be safe even if animals are treated poorly, lack the care they need and don’t have their health prioritized, and/or if the conditions for procuring and moving the milk are unsanitary.

This means that yes, you could have more nutritious, tastier milk if it isn’t pasteurized (having some trace micronutrients and significant probiotics), and you can have a higher standard of health for the animals and the conditions in which they and the farm workers are in.

This means that, in light of today’s opportunity for better standards (via husbandry, sanitation, and testing), pasteurization is likely an outdated method for making our milk safe. So, why pasteurize instead of take better care of the animals? I suspect because it’s cheaper to burn away danger than to prevent it. huh.

My decisions:

As a person who wants to maximize my health and see animals treated humanely, I will search for raw milk-providers that show proper sanitation and care for their animals and can produce a record of testing for bad bacteria. If I cannot find a farmer who qualifies, I will stick to nut milks rather than risk the likelihood of poor animal treatment behind the pasteurization process.

Last thoughts:

I realize that many buyers don’t care much about things associated with “animal rights” or gut bacteria, in which case, one easy and cheap way to avoid disease is likely to be buying pasteurized milk, should they decide to buy milk.

I also realize that my decision to buy and look into buying raw milk from farmers with my requirements puts me in a position of privilege. Not everyone has the time or the money. I think this sucks because I think that anyone who cares should be able to have access to the best possible foods for health and not have to risk putting animals in danger- and not have to worry about dying themselves because no busses will take them out to a farm so they can assure themselves that they’re buying from farmers who are safe, care, and remove the risks that can cause raw milk to be dangerous.

Obviously, the ideal solution would be for the outmoded process of pasteurization to be completely replaced with better sanitation, health standards, and testing for cow farmers to ensure safety.

However, I am not king, and likely won’t have my way on that. At least not immediately.

In lieu of immediate reform, I hope that more information can be offered on the underlying causes of the dangers of raw milk and volunteer cooperatives may be formed to outline the standards that should be there, enabling raw milk farmers to make their milk safe and enable consumers to see which farms are following through with those standards. Perhaps once those standards are established, it may be that raw milk can be considered a staple and assistance programs can safely offer it. It also may be that people will prefer it and it will slowly overtake farming methods that use pasteurization instead.

One can hope.



[1] Food safety hazards associated with consumption of raw milk. Oliver SP1, Boor KJ, Murphy SC, Murinda SE.

[2] Consumption of raw or unpasteurized milk and milk products by pregnant women and children. Committee on Infectious Diseases; Committee on Nutrition; American Academy of Pediatrics.

[3] A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of pasteurization on milk vitamins, and evidence for raw milk consumption and other health-related outcomes. Macdonald LE1, Brett J, Kelton D, Majowicz SE, Snedeker K, Sargeant JM.

[4] The complex microbiota of raw milk. Lisa Quigley, Oria O’Sullivan, Catherine Stanton, Tom P. Beresford, R. Paul Ross, Gerald F. Fitzgerald, & Paul D. Cotter.

[5] Effect of Raw Milk on Lactose Intolerance: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. Sarah Mummah, Beibei Oelrich, Jessica Hope, Quyen Vu, and  Christopher D. Gardner.


Self portrait taken by me.

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