This is a different kind of post, as it features a research paper I wrote on an unquestionably controversial topic: raw milk. Because so much of midwifery care involves proper, intentional nutrition, I find that the raw milk debate is often at the center of such discussions. This is quite valid, as dairy makes up a large portion of the average Western diet, and must be given careful consideration. Below, I present my findings on this topic, as well as a history of pasteurization’s role in our foods. I would love to know your thoughts on this debate!
In the days before pasteurization, when farm-fresh butter possessed a natural golden color, and people knew which cow had produced the milk on their table, cow’s milk was a commodity far more precious than many Americans could imagine, for its days were numbered. Our nation has not known dairy foods of this caliber since pasteurization became the standard, and the heating process has altered milk at the consumer’s expense. Originally intended to prevent fatal illnesses, pasteurization and related practices have only managed to create a nutritionally-inadequate food with little resemblance to its intended, natural form. While a few sources of “raw” or “real” milk still remain, it is illegal in most regions of The United States for the cow’s owners to sell and/or distribute raw milk and its byproducts. Raw milk sales should once again be legal because the benefits far outweigh any risks; in chemical and nutritional terms, it is an altogether different food than pasteurized milk, and, therefore, in no way comparable or replicable; and it is the responsibility of the consumer to accept or reject any associated risks.
Raw milk possesses benefits to human health which have been lost since the dawn of pasteurization. The pasteurization process was necessary due to many shortcuts taken by American dairy farmers in the early 19th century (Schmid 53-54). The correlation between inferior animal feed (swill from distilleries), mistreatment of the animals, unsafe handling practices, and inferior milk (the result) was not acknowledged by many, apart from the few ethical dairy farmers and consumers with a desire for high-quality, pure milk. Pasteurization became the proposed solution to a created problem. Schmid argues in this work: “They [health officials] did not grasp the fact that germs, per se, are not the problem, and that every traditional culture that has ever existed has emphasized the importance of raw animal foods in the maintenance of human health, resistance to disease and ultimate reproductive capacity” (55). Schmid’s statement serves to reminds us that all foods, whether processed, heat-treated, or raw, may potentially experience contamination before reaching the consumer. Because raw milk is such a rich food in terms of nutritional accessibility, it promotes human health (among those who consume it regularly, as in the past) in such a way that most present bacteria may be combated by the body’s natural defense systems. Our culture has lost a valuable defense against disease in altering this perfect food.
Additionally, contaminants are only ever from a cow’s environment, and not from the milk itself, which is completely sterile upon production in the udder (Melini 3). It is sufficient to know one’s raw milk provider and the hygiene standards for their dairy to be confident that one is consuming a wonderful, safe food. Ron Schmid, a naturopathic physician and farmer, comments on the health of young children in his practice: “In my own experience, there is not a single problem that occurs in infants and young children that cannot be helped by eliminating milk from the diet.” He continues: “Upper respiratory symptoms, frequent ear infections, and asthma are often the most obvious symptoms, but virtually any complaint may be a manifestation of allergy to pasteurized milk, as well as to other processed foods” (290). The correlations between raw milk and improved health are quite obvious when pasteurized dairy is removed from the patient’s diet. Anne Mendelson, in her book Milk, reminds us that raw milk cannot be pinpointed as the sole culprit contributing to the rise in pathogenic contamination, as pasteurized milk and cheeses produced from pasteurized ingredients continue to be contaminated after production (57). Pasteurization is clearly not the answer to our problem.
Pasteurization is often seen as an innocuous treatment for milk, when, in reality, it transforms the milk into a completely different beverage, both in chemical and nutritional terms. Milk, a perfect food intended to nourish cows’ young at precisely the temperature at which it arrives, is being altered dramatically by the time human consumers partake. Of course, to some degree, time and temperature are factors which we cannot eliminate completely (milk must be refrigerated, and transportation takes some time), but pasteurization is an extreme which is absolutely unnecessary. Anne Mendelson, an acclaimed food writer and critic, comments on the differences which she has observed personally: “The more cost-effective approaches that are almost universal today involve higher temperatures with near-instantaneous heating and cooling by continuous flow. They tend to impart a slightly more cooked flavor while denaturing some of the water-soluble milk proteins…” (55). She goes on to say that homogenization must also be considered when comparing the immense flavor differences between raw and heat-treated milk, but it is generally acknowledged that milk “just doesn’t taste like it used to.” Unfortunately, we continue to consume this beverage in a vastly inferior form for no apparent reason.
Though our senses readily detect that the flavor of milk has been affected, it is also possible to observe the chemical changes milk is subjected to via the pasteurization process. In a study of the chemical changes in goat milk compounds as a result of heat processing, Martín Buffa and his colleagues discovered the following:
“…pasteurization induces numerous changes in milk relevant to cheese-making, such as destruction of the heat sensitive microbiota, inactivation/activation of enzymes and partial denaturation of whey proteins. In this way, the drastic reduction in the number of propioni bacteria and facultatively heterofermentative lactobacilli produced by milk pasteurization, modifies the catabolism of many organic acids, such as lactate and citrate.” (247)
Lactate and citrate are vital to cheese-making, yet their quantities are decreased, and the very composition is being modified. In their work, they continued to test the variations between high-pressure treated, pasteurized, and raw milk in order to determine if chemical differences would affect cheese-making. At the end of the 60-day ripening process, it was noted that “cheeses made from [raw] or [pressure-treated] milk exhibited higher concentration of organic acids than in those made from [pasteurized] milk” (249-250). Age-old traditions, including cheese-making, are being dismally affected by pasteurization. For certain enzymes and microbiota to be destroyed means that the dairy product will be altogether different in chemical terms. Certain molds impart their unique flavor to cheeses, lending the distinctive flavors which buyers expect. If the chemical structure of the cheese is different, will the same molds be present, or will they be present to the same degree? (We have established that the microbiome is altogether alien from its original form.) In cheese-making, flavor and quality are of utmost importance, yet pasteurization, a means of tainting both of these characteristics, is now required.
Finally, raw milk production, distribution, and sales should be legal because it is up to consumers to determine whether they will accept or reject any associated risks. Pasteurization undoubtedly played a role in slowing the spread of illness when cities were battling serious contamination and hygiene issues in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (Schmid 54-57), but to mandate that all dairy be subjected to this process is encroaching on personal choice. It becomes a genuine liberty issue when we cannot choose to partake of one option or the other. Mendelson assuages readers’ potential fears regarding raw dairy products:
“You don’t have to regard all raw milk as a deadly poison in order to think that people looking to buy, sell, or regulate it should pay superficial attention to the cleanliness of cows, milking equipment, and storage conditions. But if produced and handled under eagle-eyed supervision it should be no riskier than other raw foods that command happy followings among food lovers…” (57)
Mendelson brings up a valid point: Americans partaking of other raw foods, such as sashimi or raw oysters, do so at their own risk. Even cooked seafood often comes with a warning. Yet, in this great country, it is illegal in most areas to drink a glass of farm-fresh milk. Just as people do not need the government to guide them in selecting raw foods from a sushi restaurant, it is ludicrous to think that the eradication of raw milk options will be any more protective.
The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit a few years ago against the FDA, in response to the ban on interstate sales of raw milk. The alarming response from the defense is as follows: “Plaintiffs’ assertion of a ‘fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health, which includes what foods they do and do not choose to consume for themselves and their families’ is similarly unavailing because plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish” (26). Our rights to consume whatever we choose are being stripped away in the name of safety, with the raw milk debate serving as a major channel for these disturbing developments.
Opposition may claim that such diseases as tuberculosis, which was once rampant in our nation, are now under control, thanks to the precautionary measures of across-the-board pasteurization. It cannot be overlooked, though, that the cases of tuberculosis infection were associated solely with consumption of pasteurized, and not raw milk (Schmid 271). In response to the statements claiming that only trace amounts of vitamins, such as vitamin C, are present in raw milk, and therefore of no concern when destroyed or altered through pasteurization, it is essential to note that a food so perfect as milk, which is capable of sustaining and equipping both mind and body from birth through infancy, continues to perform functions which our technology cannot yet detect. Until it can, rather than continue to make decisions regarding components of milk which are not currently understood, is it not wisest to be conservative in this matter and preserve as many of these trace elements and vitamins as nature intended? In as many cases as men have disregarded supposedly “non-essential” aspects of life (e.g. the appendix or tonsils and their purposes), harm has nearly always resulted.
Raw milk, then, is as safe as any other raw food, is compromised and transformed into a completely different food through pasteurization and similar practices, and ought to be available to all consumers, to purchase at their own discretion. When discussing a matter so basic as the right to drink either fresh or pasteurized milk, it is imperative to consider the natural repercussions of limiting citizen’s options to that of pasteurized dairy alone, such as loss of health, loss of liberty, and the loss of a uniquely nourishing beverage. Though pasteurization served its purpose in a specific time and place, the breach into the realm of personal liberty through its mandate is an unforgivable one, and is in dire need of reform. In allowing one more food option, or one more privilege to slip away, we relinquish our grip on a plethora of rights, and may only recognize this once it is far too late.
Buffa, Martín et al. “Changes in Organic Acids During Ripening of Cheeses Made from Raw, Pasteurized or High-Pressure-Treated Goats’ Milk.” Swiss Society of Food Science and Technology, vol. 37, 2004, pp. 247-253.
Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund v. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. 1-30. Iowa District Court. 26 Apr. 2010.
Melini, Francesca et al. “Raw and Heat-Treated Milk: From Public Health Risks to Nutritional Quality.” Beverages, vol. 3, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1-33.
Mendelson, Anne. “Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages.” Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Schmid, Ron. “The Untold Story of Milk.” NewTrends, 2003.