A local news story caught my attention a couple of weeks ago. It concerned a dairy that sells raw milk. Customers of the dairy were being advised to discard any raw milk recently purchased from that dairy because of an outbreak of Campylobacter infections associated with the milk sold there. The same farm had an outbreak of the same bacteria last year.
Raw milk is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. The pasteurization process involves heating the milk to kill off harmful bacteria.
Raw milk is a controversial product. The CDC and other health agencies do not recommend consuming it for health reasons. The sale of raw milk is illegal in 22 states of the United States. Pennsylvania is one of the states where it is legal. Many countries have outlawed the sale of raw milk entirely.
I know people who purchase raw milk because they say it tastes better. I also know people who purchase it because they think it is healthier. I won't address taste as that is subjective but we can take a look at nutritional claims and whether they seem to be accurate.
Raw milk advocates claim that the pasteurization process destroys nutrients contained in the milk. Studies show that heat-sensitive vitamins - vitamin C and thiamine - are affected by pasteurization. 10% to 30% of these vitamins are destroyed when the milk is processed in this manner. The thing is, milk is not a significant source of either of these nutrients so that doesn't seem to be a great issue.
The main nutrients found in milk are calcium and protein. These are not affected by the pasteurization process nor are other vitamins in milk besides vitamin C and thiamine. In addition, pasteurized milk is usually fortified with vitamin D which helps our bodies absorb calcium. Raw milk doesn't contain this addition.
Raw milk contains 4.2% butter fat. By comparison, pasteurized whole milk contains 3.25% butter fat. (3.5% in the UK) So, there is more fat in raw milk - which would be a consideration if you are watching your diet. As a side note, I imagine that the higher fat content might contribute to the better taste people mention when talking about raw milk.
Now let's look at some of the bacteria that could be found in raw milk. E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and the aforementioned Campylobacter can all be found in raw milk and can make you sick. E. coli can cause diarrhea and some strains could cause kidney failure or even death. Listeria can cause a fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea and miscarriage in pregnant women. If it goes untreated, it could become dangerous and affect the nervous system. Salmonella can also cause nausea, vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea. Campylobacter can cause infectious diarrhea. As with any food poisoning, the very old and very young are at the greatest risk of having a serious complications and even dying.
There are other possible bacteria contained in raw milk but I'm not going to mention them as they are less likely to be found or difficult to catch.
In my opinion any possible health benefits of raw milk are minimal and it is not a reason to consume it. The health risks are rather rare but still a possibility. I will not drink it myself as I don't want to take the risk of developing food poisoning. A healthy adult might consider this a risk they are willing to take for the sake of flavor but this isn't a good reason for me. I would not ever consider serving raw milk to children, pregnant women or to the elderly because of the possible risks involved.
You might disagree with me and that's fine but make sure that your reasons for drinking it aren't based on misconceptions and be aware of the risks.
The following websites were used as some of the sources for the facts in this post:
Image of Bernardus Johannes Blommer's The Milk Maid found here