June is National Dairy Month and the perfect time to celebrate the nutritious properties of dairy products. Besides the wonderful taste of a cold chocolate milkshake, the creamy texture of yogurt or the added tang of sharp cheddar on a salad, dairy products provide vital nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and protein. With all their benefits it’s hard to imagine any risks they might pose and lucky for us dairy lovers most products aren’t risky at all. However, raw milk, or milk that is not pasteurized, and products made from raw milk carry a higher risk of contamination from disease causing bacteria.
Raw Milk and the Risks of Consumption
Unlike the commercially available pasteurized milk and milk products we see in the grocery store each week, raw milk does not undergo pasteurization-the process of heating milk to a specific temperature to reduce the amount and growth of pathogenic bacteria. Because they are not pasteurized raw milk products can harbor harmful microorganisms that are normally killed such as E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobactor and Listeria. These bacteria pose significant health risks to anyone who drinks raw milk or eats products made from raw milk, especially children, the elderly, pregnant women, and others with weakened immune systems. Illness ranges from mild gastro intestinal distress lasting a few days to more severe, chronic, long term health complications such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can result in acute renal failure. In light of the risk of food borne illness, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has communicated that “raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe.”
Because of the health risks associated with the consumption of raw milk, interstate sale and most intrastate sale is prohibited. Because states have the ability to regulate this area individually some allow limited raw milk and raw milk product sales provided they are within state boundaries, are explicitly labeled as unpasteurized, and are for human consumption only.
Despite the health risks, widespread illegality and lack of retail availability, raw milk consumption is on the rise, falsely appealing to a growing segment of consumers who want minimally processed, ‘natural’ foods. Raw milk advocates from A Campaign for Real Milk suggest it has a superior taste and enhanced nutritional properties. Unfortunately limited scientific evidence exists to support these claims while there is an abundance of epidemiological data demonstrating the numerous health risks.
According to the research (food safety risk aside) there is no significant difference in the nutritional values of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. Most commercially sold pasteurized milk in the US is fortified with vitamins A and D and as a result it is a better dietary source of these nutrients. Raw milk does contain some beneficial bacteria, that when present in high enough quantities can have positive health effects. However, the number of these bacteria is variable and generally low. Other foods contain beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, that are less risky to consume, more widely available and cheaper than raw milk. These include products like yogurt where the bacteria has been added back in after pasteurization and other varieties of foods like juices, cereals and granola bars where the probiotics are added as an additional functional ingredient. Alternatively, several probiotic supplements are commercially available that may offer the same benefit as consumption of foods containing the bacteria.
Think Before You Drink
When it comes to raw milk, don’t be fooled by false claims of superior nutrition or lofty health benefits. Know the facts and think before you drink. Other resources that may be helpful include:
“Raw Milk: Think Before You Drink” by Lindsay Maurath first appeared on the International Food Information Council Foundation Nutrition Blog on June 14, 2010.