Your guide to Raw Milk
All of a sudden, raw milk has the public frothing. The topic springs up at dinner parties, in health food stores, on woefully bland current affairs programs – everyone seems to have an opinion on whether the warm, creamy elixir, straight from the Bovine’s boob, has a place in the modern Aussie diet (except perhaps commercial news networks, who appear unable to provide one iota of intelligent discussion and generally resort to apathetic fence-sitting).
It’s a difficult topic to traverse; highly emotionally charged and, like many issues of food production, at the mercy of an overarching oligopoly - small scale farms and boutique producers have no place in an industry concerned with mass production. It is all too easy for anti-raw proponents to invoke the persuasive power of scary bacterial infestations, Tuberculosis outbreaks and the health of our children, painting raw enthusiasts as irresponsible idealists.
After cringing at the inadequacy of information provided by all mainstream accounts, I thought there was room to explore more thoroughly the arguments concerning raw and pasteurised milk. That way, when someone decides to challenge you to a dairy-based dinner-party duel, you have fodder for fightin’, whichever side of the picket fence you may find yourself.
Pasteurisation is a process that came about after the experiments of Louis Pasteur pinned microorganisms (bacteria) as agents of disease. Heating fluids to a certain temperature was shown to sterilise and inhibit the proliferation of these disease-causing pathogens, and, at the turn of the 20th Century as poor sanitation and food borne illness reigned, pasteurisation appeared a miracle.
In Australia, all milk sold for human consumption must adhere to this 72C, 15 second + rule, with the general consensus being that nutritional losses that occur as a result of this process are outweighed by the risk of possible infection.
Ironically, most issues with hygiene and contaminants can traced to sub-standard production techniques – they are not inherent in the product itself. Cows crammed into tiny, grubby cubicles and mass milking that champions quantity over care, facilitate the spread of disease and rampant malnutrition (as well as psychological trauma and bovine depression, but that’s for another day). In this way, pasteurisation can be seen as a ‘band-aid’ stuck firmly over a wider, weeping gash. It allows us to continue our malpractice and ‘fix’ the problem downstream, rather than raise the unhappy question – should factory farming exist at all?
To inject some balance and an appreciation of the practicalities, I agree that pasteurisation does allow large amounts of milk to be rendered ‘safe’ for human consumption (although, even this process isn’t foolproof). With society’s preference for abundance, mindless consumption and on-tap tipples, a huge demand is placed on farmers and the positive feedback loop for hyper-supply persists.
My point remains however, that embracing slow food, cultivating an attitude of care in consumption and fundamentally re-evaluating our farming practices would (positively) change the agricultural landscape. And in turn, negate such hefty requirements for sanitisation.
What are the actual risks?
It’s difficult to find solid data on the incidence of raw-milk related illness, especially in Australia. There are also a number of confounding factors that are worthy of investigation before we even think of numbers and percentages.
- What does ‘You could become sick from drinking raw milk!’ even mean? Does it involve a transient episode of gas, or full-blown case of death? There are degrees of ‘danger’ – not all consequences may be dire, requiring hospitalisation.
- Where are you sourcing your raw milk? Common sense dictates that enjoying a raw creamy bevvo from the udder of a sickly, pus-ridden cow may not be a wise choice. (Likewise, questioning the origins of all of our food should be a matter of culinary course). As I mentioned earlier, raw milk from healthy, pasture-raised cows on a small, specialty farm is going to be vastly superior to fermented bathtub cheese smuggled across the border in mouldy plastic buckets (seriously, an American CDC report included data on the safety of illegal home-made cheese in it’s anti-raw-milk statistics, wildly skewing the results and proving not all official reports are created equal).This is yet another case of ‘outrageously simplistic presentation of the facts’, a government/big-business fave.
- Are diseases such as Tuberculosis even transmissible between cows and humans? An interesting question to ask, as it is often assumed that TB is all the same, home-wrecking bug. Actually, Micobacterium bovis is the species of bacteria infecting cattle, whereas Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the human strain. It seems that there is a lower risk of transmission between species’ – farmers in contact with diseased cattle rarely become ill and sources suggest it is a lot harder to contract than we’ve been led to believe. Add to this the fact that Australia was declared Bovine Tuberculosis free in 1997, and my vision of a big phlegmy TB monster lurking at the bottom of every milk carton is rapidly diminishing.
So we’ve established that, as always, there are contextual (and common-sense-tual) factors at play. But we want numbers, right? Because statistics are always favoured over random guessing (not that i’d EVER do that here. GULP).
A recent article by Chris Kresser imbues the whole debate with a little more perspective. It’s easy to paint raw milk as a dirty, poisonous, microbial orgy, however just what are the chances of becoming infected?
A choice quote:
The risk of dying in a plane crash (1 in 2,000,000) is orders of magnitude lower than dying in a car accident (1 in 8,000) – and yet most people who are afraid of flying don’t hesitate to get in their car. But as unlikely as dying in a plane crash is, it’s about 3 times more likely than becoming hospitalized (not dying) from drinking unpasteurized milk. (source)
For the numbers geeks, he broke it down further (keeping in mind these are American statistics – not sure if we could consider Australian farmers more or less conscientious? I’m going with a whole lot more! National pride and all.)
Based on a study done between 2000-2007 investigating raw milk safety, he estimates that we have roughly a 1 in 94,000 chance of becoming ill after consuming unpasteurised milk – that’s ill, not walking the tightrope of death. In order to ellicit the most sympathy and actually wind up in hospital, you’re looking at a 1 in 6 million chance that raw milk will put you there.
Hardly compelling statistics when we contemplate the public health risks of items that are legal, ubiquitous and worse still, marketed towards children. Things like fast food, soft drinks, bottled fruit juices, lollies, chips, cereal and – i’ll go so far – adulterated dairy. Why are all these hazardous goods upheld as valid, edible, mealtime options when a highly nutritious, traditional beverage is vilified? The eternal frustration of modern nutrition.
What happens when milk is pasteurised? Is it really that bad?
I mentioned ‘adulterated dairy’ as one of those evil usurpers, stealing the place of far more worthy dietary inclusions. But what exactly happens to dairy when it is homogenized, pasteurised, flavoured and impregnated with artificial colours, flavours and preservatives?
As I mentioned, pasteurisation is a process that involves heating milk at 72C for 15 seconds or longer, in order to ‘sterilise’ it.
An excerpt from Nourished Magazine sums up the problems with this practice beautifully:
- Destroys folic acid, vitamins B2, B12 and two thirds of the Vitamin A as well as Vitamin C (cows produce more vitamin C than citrus crops but most is destroyed by pasteurisation),
- Inactivates the enzymes required to absorb fats (lipase), carbohydrates (lactase digests lactose) and calcium (phosphotase),
- Oxidizes cholesterol
- Alters milk proteins
- Damages omega-3 fats (source)
Milk is homogenised in order to stop it separating into it’s various parts and to extend shelf life. If you’ve ever had the real deal, fatty globules rise to the top of the jug while the milk resides at the bottom. Of course, the modern consumer must be protected at all costs from interacting with his/her food – shaking the bottle, skimming off the cream, winking at the milkman – all unnecessary and frankly troubling requirements of raw milk consumption.
Instead, the milk is forced at extremely high pressures through tiny holes, changing the structure of fats and proteins and dispersing them evenly through the solution. This practice alters milk at the microscopic level – irreparably damaging fats, proteins and nutrients. As these tiny fragments reassemble, there is speculation that the ‘clumped’ particles are responsible for increased milk allergies and less bioavailabilty of nutrients such as calcium. Not to mentions stark links to cardiovascular disease.
How’s this for a quote from the NZ Naturopathic society?
According to Dr Oster, with Dr Donald Ross of Fairfield University and Dr John Zikakis of the University of Delaware, homogenising allows the enzyme xanthine oxidase (XO) to pass intact into the blood stream. There it attacks the plasmologen tissue of the artery walls and parts of the heart muscle. This causes lesions that the body tries to heal by laying down a protective layer of cholesterol. The end result is scar tissue and calcified plaques with a build-up of cholesterol and other fatty deposits. We call these arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis. According to these experts, dietary cholesterol is not the main cause of heart attacks; it is homogenised milk. (source)
Homogenisation it seems, is a questionable practice at best and diabolically unhealthy at worst.
Other hidden nasties
Apart from undergoing these delightful experiments, conventional milk may also house other interesting additives.
There’s been an ad campaign recently highlighting the addition of something called ‘permeate’ to Australian milk – smug dairy companies who don’t use this cheese-making by-product are lording the fact over their cringing counterparts. But, goddamnit, it shouldn’t be a matter of permeate-free, it should just be MILK! Without any fillers, weird watery stuff or chemical discombobulation.
Sugar and flavourings in ‘lolly-milk’ are also a choice thing to behold. If you combine the natural sugar (lactose) found in milk with the added sugar in an 8oz carton, you’re looking at 28 grams of sugar, all in one hit. Along with whatever other flavourings and magical dyes they put in there, i’d sooner feed my child mouldy McDonalds! (Just kidding, Maccas ain’t nutritious enough to rot).
The benefits of raw milk
Fresh milk from pasture-raised cows is a powerhouse of nutrition (and I don’t use that cliche lightly!). Many traditional (and exceptionally healthy) societies included a large portion of raw dairy, fermented milk drinks and home-made cheeses in their diets (such as the Massai).
Nutritional benefits include:
- High levels of essential fatty acids and CLA.
- High levels of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, K & E. Also, vitamins which are usually degraded by pasteurisation remain, such as Vitamin C and the B-group vitamins.
- Raw milk is a ‘living’ food; it contains enzymes and helpful, healthy bacteria that aid in its digestion and promote fabulous gut health.
- A great source of fat, protein and absorbable calcium.
- Can be ‘clabbered’ – if you leave raw milk out to sour, it will actually become yogurt-like and highly nutritious, full of probiotic strains and lower in lactose.
- Many people who usually consider themselves ‘lactose intolerant’ find they can digest raw milk fine; the extra enzymes and full spectrum of synergistic nutrients may play a part in this.
Let’s not forget that milk is a perishable commodity, necessitating a local focus; procure it regularly, and close-by. If we were all to hypothetically purchase our diary from small-scale farmers we would support a beautiful local economy, reallocating power that is currently in the hands of supermarket chains and multi-national corporations.
Ultimately, it is still illegal to peddle raw milk in Australia. People have been fined big bucks for selling it and disseminating irresponsible, villainous lies as to it’s health benefits. It is therefore at the discretion of the consumer to seek out and purchase whatever milk product they see fit, confident in their ability to make informed and positive choices. Personally, I would always choose a big glass of frothy raw milk, cracking a huge white-moustachioed smile as I surveyed the inferior candidates – homogenised and pasteurised dairy. (You can purchase it under the guise of ‘bath milk’ – a sneaky store-holder loophole). Ultimately the choice rests in your fiddly fingertips – my only wish is that now you’re slightly more savvy to the details of the debate. Or at least, convinced that I have entirely too much time on my hands and should stop writing essays on milkshakes*.
* I really, really wanted to title this post ‘My raw milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and then I give them a huge lecture as to it’s superior health benefits as opposed to conventional, pasteurised dairy. Then they don’t want my milkshake anymore, and my yard is empty’ but I didn’t think it would give me a great ranking on Google. Or add to my credibility.
What’s your opinion on Raw Milk? Do you drink it? Have you noticed any health benefits?