Should You Drink Raw Milk?

Sharon March 28th, 2012

Or rather, maybe I should ask “how should you drink raw milk, if you are going to.”

As I’ve mentioned, we raise our own dairy goats and milk them, and we drink the milk raw, or rather, unpasteurized. Since I wrote my last piece about the goats, I’ve had several people email me asking for advice about their dairy choices – one person living locally wanted me to sell her raw milk, two others asked if I advised people who can’t get their own livestock to source and purchase raw milk. So I thought I’d write a piece about raw milk and your options.

Perhaps the first thing I want to say is that I actually don’t have that strong an opinion on this subject, believe it or not. That is, I drink raw milk because I have raw milk. I could pasteurize it, but because we have a comparatively small number of animals, and a very, very short food chain – ie, my milk goes from the goat to a sterile jar to my kitchen to cool to another sterile jar to chill quite quickly – it doesn’t make sense. We know just what our goats are eating and we watch them closely for signs of disease. If there’s any reason to be concerned, we dump the milk.

We also have no compelling reason to pasteurize at this point – my children are all over 2, I am no longer in my breeding days, and everyone has a perfectly healthy immune system. Had we had goats when the kids were babies or I was pregnant, or with anyone with a compromised immune system, we’d pasteurize.  If we were permitted to feed foster children our own milk under any circumstances, I would pasteurize just to be safe, but we can’t.

As it is, we don’t pasteurize for two reasons – the first is that we prefer the taste, particularly as we eat most of it, as yogurt and cheese, and the second is that we do think that milk in its natural form is easier to digest. I’m mildly lactose intolerant, but can use raw goat’s milk more easily than pasteurized – I’ve experimented and find that my own problem with lactase seems to be less with unpasteurized milk.

The sheer quality of raw milk cheeses is its own argument for raw milk, honestly – if you seriously like cheese, you just wouldn’t choose the pasteurized.

What about all the other claims that people make about the benefits of raw milk? I am completely agnostic on this subject, but I tend to suspect they are probably overstated.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have any merits, just that I don’t think it has magic properties.

I can say with complete truth that drinking raw milk has not magically healed my child’s autism, or made my husbands allergies disappear. This, of course, is anecdotal evidence, and there does seem to be some rather uncorroborated evidence that children with allergies may benefit from raw milk, but there simply isn’t enough research to make some of the claims that people make. I’m willing to see compelling evidence for milk-as-medicine, but ultimately, I think raw milk is mostly just food. It is a very nice food, good, healthy food, but just a food – perhaps with health benefits, also with some health risks.

To be honest, I find myself joining with Michael Pollan on this – I don’t trust the idea of food as medicine. I prefer to think of food as food. By this I mean that I don’t trust people who claim to have taken plant matter, taken it apart and isolated the single “important” part and then synthesized it and suggested we add it to our diet. I also don’t trust people on the other side of it who trumpet the magic powers of some new tropical plant to heal everything. And I don’t buy it in relationship to milk. The reality is that food has an enormous amount to do with health, and there’s some deeply crappy food out there – that said, however, none of us ever just drink milk or oat bran or Tibetan Noni Juice – the idea of the single food as savior doesn’t work for me.  What you should eat is a simple, healthy, basic diet that involves lots of kinds of food – that’s the most important element in good health – a large variety of good for you stuff and a small variety of the rest.

That said, I admit to a mild suspicion of the claim that pasteurization has absolutely no effect on the benefits of milk – we know for example that in human milk, raising the temperature of the milk does remove beneficial elements and reduce digestibility in infants. That doesn’t mean that pasteurization isn’t beneficial – but it is a balancing act, thus, breast milk is not routinely pasteurized, although it may be to prevent the transmission of HIV or CMV. That’s not an argument, in and of itself against pasteurization, but we already know that the heat treatment of milk affects its constituent elements from considerable research into breast milk.

And raw milk may well have benefits, but it also does have risks. The reality is that milk is a perfect medium for bacteria growth – and that people have gotten ecoli, salmonella and listeria from raw milk. The FDA claims 800 illnesses from raw milk in the last twelve years – and there has been at least one serious outbreak of illness associated with raw milk, in California. It is easy to think of e-coli as a minor illness, just a little case of food poisoning, but it can be fatal, and even if it isn’t, it can make you wish it was.

The truth is that unless I’d seen the inside of the barn belonging to the person who I was buying milk from, and seen their herd records, I’m honestly not sure that I would buy raw milk. That doesn’t mean that dairy farmers don’t handle their milk carefully – they do – but on a large scale, milking a lot of cows with equipment that moves over multiple animals, I’d be at least more cautious. And if I were pregnant or feeding a child under two, I would recommend against unpasteurized milk.

Besides taking great care in selecting a raw milk producer, honestly, I’d also remind people that if you are buying milk, you do need to treat it differently than you would pasteurized milk. I think some of the health difficulties associated with raw milk probably stem not from producers but from consumers who don’t grasp that raw milk is a more sensitive food. I think there is a real case, for example, for the beneficial bacteria in raw milk in our digestive systems – after all, we don’t pasteurize breast milk. But then again, we don’t pick up our breastmilk on an afternoon in July, carry it around in the sun for half an hour at the farmer’s market and then spend 40 minutes in a warm car with it either. Your grocery store milk may have its lifespan shortened slightly by that kind of treatment. Raw milk may be substantively changed – there’s just a lot more going on inside of it.

So if you are the sort of person who buys a half-gallon every week and drinks it for seven days, until the last glass is a little off, you won’t want to be a raw milk consumer. The truth is that I wouldn’t keep my raw milk more than three days, even in perfect cold conditions – either drink it or turn it into something that does keep, whether cheese or yogurt or kefir. If the conditions are less than perfect, you want to keep it even a shorter time. The reality is that the longer you keep living food, the more life, good and bad it will have in it.

I think raw milk should be available for sale everywhere. I also think that explicit labelling should be required – I don’t just mean a casual “read our brochure about raw milk” kind of thing but an explicit articulation of risks. At this point, however, most states don’t permit the sale of raw milk, so many people are getting it illicitly. In general, I’m pretty much in favor of illicit agriculture, and opposed to regulation, but the truth is that the milk laws emerged for compelling reasons – milk is a bacteria friendly substance that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I don’t have a problem with appropriate dairy regulation – on the other hand, that shouldn’t mean you have to spend 50K on a barn, either.  It should be perfectly possible to make people aware of risk and also of benefit, and let them choose.

If you want raw milk, I would purchase it only after understanding the full risk-benefit analysis. I do not recommend it for pregnant women or children under 2, although I know plenty of people do drink it in those circumstances. I would either get your own dairy animal or purchase milk *only* from people who you actually develop a relationship with, after seeing their barn and handling techniques, and knowing what testing they do. I would make sure that I *always* do my milk pickup with a cooler on hand and keep it cool all the time. I would drink my milk quickly, or process it to make cheese and yogurt.

I would love to see raw milk be more available to those who do make informed choices and who want it, and I’d love to see small dairy producers able to sell it. But to do so requires a level of involvement and consciousness about your food that is simply different than picking up a quart of milk at the grocery store.

22 Responses to “Should You Drink Raw Milk?”

  1. Nicole says:

    IMO, the single greatest argument for the pasteurization of milk is the modern food production chain. I would never, ever, walk into a grocery store and buy raw milk off the shelf today. I would hesitate to purchase it from anyone for whom I wasn’t intimately aware of their processing practices — and not being an expert I’m not sure if I’d spot the problems.

    That said, I used to buy raw milk from a co-op when I live in No Cal, and my experience was that instead of going bad more quickly, it stayed fresh much longer than pasteurized. I can’t say if this was because it was cow, not goat’s milk or that the supplier and store were superior in their production and/or handling of it. I know it wasn’t me treating it any differently.

    On the other hand, I’ve purchased fresh raw goat cheese and had one pound of it be “off” from day one. I made goat cheese cheesecake instead and it was divine, but I stopped buying cheese from that source.

    Dairy is just plain complicated. While it’s true we should all know more about our food, modern society already asks us to be an expert in a lot of things, from our jobs to the incredibly involved task of driving a car at 70mph. So I stick with pasteurized, even though I think raw tastes better.

  2. I’ve been on the fence about this for a while. I really want to get to the heart of the facts, but it seems like most of the time there are only two groups talking about raw milk: the raw milk lovers, which liken it to a religion, and the government, which likens it to the devil. Finding the facts is nearly impossible, as almost every article you read is biased. I appreciate your take on the topic. If I had access to raw milk on my own property, I would certainly drink it. If it came directly from a farm I visited and trusted, I would drink it. That being said, I don’t have milk animals and raw milk is illegal to sell here in Georgia, so it will probably be a while before I get any.

  3. Jessica says:

    I second what Nicole says — I used to get raw milk from my former next door neighbour who was milking about 50-60 cows, and I found that it stayed fresh much longer than supermarket milk. Also, when it did eventually go off, it just sort of soured, and I found that I could still use it in cooking, as opposed to supermarket milk which clumps and smells and just needs to be poured down the drain!

  4. Sharon says:

    Jessica, Nicole – you are slightly mistaking my point. You are discussing “fresh tasting” – ie, the growth of bacteria that you can taste that give milk an off-flavor. But that’s not the only kind of bacteria that grow in milk and some bacteria grow faster than others, and can’t be identified by flavor. If you buy unpasteurized milk that may be contaminated by, say, listeria, the safest thing is to buy and drink it quickly after keeping it at cold temperatures, because the bacteria have to multiply to a critical quantity to make you sick – small enough numbers and your body can take care of them. Listeria, for example, does not give off-flavors, so you can’t know if it is present by taste. Other factors that are not harmful can cause off-flavors. The taste of freshness isn’t the issue – it is the time for the bacteria to multiply and comparative risk. In fact, raw milk does stay fresh longer, partly because it ferments, rather than rots like preserved milk – but again, flavor isn’t the issue here.

    Sharon

  5. jan says:

    We drink raw milk from our two small goats. The milk goes from the goat to the pail, filtered to the bottle, bottle into very cold water for about 5 to 10 minutes while I finish up chores, into the frig to be chilled and then we drink it. There are two of us, we are old and this has worked for us. Of course extra goes into yogurt, cheese and ice cream!

  6. Brandie says:

    I did notice that when I drank raw milk regularly for a couple of years, my bad knee did not bother me like it did before and does since. Anecdotal, I know, but I believe there may be some medicinal value there. For me, the line between food and medicine is a blurry one, which is not to say that I believe any single food or herb is a cure-all. Rather, I’m becoming more conscious of the many subtle roles natural foods play in our health, and not just by displacing unhealthy foods, which is how we tend to value them in our culture.

  7. Lauren says:

    Thanks for a very realistic write-up on raw milk. I milk my own two dairy goats and drink unpasturized milk. My grandkids now drink It, althoug I don’t allow them to eat the soft cheese I make (maybe when they’re 12 or so.). They eat the yogurt, but I like mine thick so I bring it up to 180 degrees, basically pasteurized, before I cool it and add the culture. Of course, we all eat ice cream! And delicious cheddar. A couple of Nigerian dwarf goats don’t take up much room – I hope that more people are allowed to keep at least does and wethers. Home-grown milk is probably the best idea. You really get more of a feel for it when a person deals with dairy products on their own kitchen daily.

  8. Great post. I raise my own dairy goats as well. When I researched the subject, I dug pretty deep into the pro-raw milk propaganda and was very disappointed in the way that the information was presented and highly distorted. In that process, I began to speak out, especially about the misinformation that is constantly being presented. I got to know some of the families who have been absolutely devastated (not just “sickened”) by drinking contaminated raw milk.

    I think if anyone were to drink their raw milk, it should come from their own animals. But my goats didn’t care if they slept in their own poop, and I’m feeding young children, so pasteurization is the way to go for me.

  9. bryan says:

    I presume everywhere the farm kids drink the unpasturized milk – I don’t think there is anything magic about raw milk, but it’s a dollar per liter at the store & the farmer gets about 25 cents.
    I happily drink when at my wife’s old farm. She’s a nurse, which doesn’t prove anything & I’m a microbiologist which is even less useful; but our rules are simple:
    - you drink it the day it was milked
    - you know the name of the cows
    - you make mooing noises while pouring

    Bryan

  10. Lauren says:

    Ditto on what Bryan said. When the grandkids drink the unpasturized milk, its from milk within 48 hours of being milked, and usually the same day.

    And some people do pasturize milk before feeding it to the kids (goat babies, that is) to prevent a goat disease, which does not affect humans, which is passed through to the goat babies through milk.

  11. Tara says:

    We milk our own goats as well and this is exactly the way I’ve always felt about it. Food, yes. Medicine, no. Delicious, yes. Magical, no. We drink our milk raw because we prefer the taste, and like you, if we have any doubt whatsoever, it gets dumped (usually to the chickens, who are more than happy to take care of it for us). I’d be thrilled to see raw milk more readily available to those who want it, and hate that it has become an all-out war between two rather extreme points of view.

  12. Gary Rondeau says:

    Bryan,
    “- you know the name of the cows”

    That’s my goal for eating meat as well.

  13. Nice balanced commentary on a fraught subject. Thanks for the perspective.

    I agree with you about food (not) being medicine. At the same time, I do think of food in general as medicine. Perhaps “diet” would be the better word there. I think when we feed our bodies with good wholesome food it is medicine in some sense. Perhaps not the way our industrialized, overdeveloped, unhealthy society construes medicine – as something that fixes a problem, or addresses the symptoms of a larger underlying problem. As I think of diet as medicine, it’s with the goal of preventing major problems in the first place, by making sure that the fuel is rich in nutrients and as free of unnatural chemicals as possible. So I guess I could argue that raw milk, by virtue of its higher nutrient content, is medicine in a sense – when it’s consumed in right proportion and along with all the other things a body needs.

  14. Hazel says:

    My feelings towards food as medicine, or not, are pretty much the same as Kate’s.

    I have grown increasingly sceptical about Super Food claims. Whether you believe in what my biology teacher used to scathingly refer to as ‘Special Creationism’ or in an Atheist Big Bang theory, I can’t believe that the only way to be healthy is to eat a berry from some remote mountain range. Or that eating natural foods from your area is bad for you (eg butter, animal fat) and that you must eat some manufactured replacement with added synthesised plant component instead.

    One day I’ll have my own sheep (Zwartbles, since you ask) and I’ll drink their raw milk. In the meantime, there aren’t many places I can get it. The last time was a camping holiday in France where it came from the farm we were staying on and it was drunk withing an hour of milking.

  15. karrie says:

    I think you and several of your commenters raise excellent points. I would not buy raw milk off a random chain grocery store shelf, but or one from a large commercial operation, but I have purchased raw milk cheeses sold in a small local market, which are made on nearby farms that I have not visited.

    I grew up on a small dairy farm, and while we sold milk that was taken away and pasteurized, we drank our own milk raw. My father was from a farming family, and everything was small scale and “organic”–albeit without official certification. We knew all the cows by name, and everything was very clean.

    I then grew up, moved to Boston and when I could “afford” to do so, bought as much as I could from Whole Foods. (Oh, if I had only known then what WF was all about….sigh.) Raw milk wasn’t widely available in MA, and I didn’t drink it for decades.

    Until a couple of months ago, when I noticed a small ad in a local free mag for a farm nearby that sells, among many other things, raw milk. This farmer even delivers to several houses on my street, in a small, efficient car! And hey, no packaging waste, since the glass jars are returned and sterilized.

    My mom, who lives with me, was beside herself–fresh cream in her coffee! LOL! I was a bit more cautious, especially with my child, since it seems that kids who are “new” to raw milk seem the most likely to get sick. He’s not a big milk drinker anyway, and more likely to eat the raw cheese or yogurt. (OMG! I know I should make my own, but the yogurt this farm makes is out of this world delish. It’s their milk, cream, vanilla and local honey. Sooooo good!)

    I’m also not sure what to think about the health claims of raw milk. I have some health issues–I’m a brain tumor survivor, and have epilepsy and am prone to sinus infections as a result. I have noticed that I’m not getting the knockdown colds I was a few months ago, but that could be due to the local honey I’m consuming or some other random thing. It might be something beneficial in the raw milk, or it might be some other combination of random factors. My primary motivations for buying it are supporting a local farmer, reducing waste and as another step of extricating myself from industrial ag.

    Still, I really think the risks are overblown when you compare something like raw milk from a small, clean operation with the risks in our industrial food system. We’re lowering our BPA exposure at least. ;-) I’d love to have goats, and plan to try it when I’m able to buy a place again. I know how to keep things clean, and would have no qualms about drinking their milk.

  16. karrie says:

    Bryan, I’m going to go fix another mug of coffee & moo at the skimmed off cream as I pour it from the jar! :-) What noise is appropriate to honor local maple syrup? LOL!

  17. Sue Sullivan says:

    We’ve been drinking raw milk from a commercial dairy run by two veterinarians for three years now. They test every batch of milk before they release it and that is the only reason I am willing to drink it. Twice in those three years a batch has tested preliminarily positive for e coli. Each time, on retest, it was clean, but they canceled the milk delivery anyway and made it into cheese. The owners suggested that either the initial test was erroneous or that the beneficial bacteria in the milk killed off whatever pathogens were there before the retest occurred.
    My husband feels like his immune system is stronger and that he gets fewer colds. That’s possibly true for all of us, though not in a hugely dramatic way. I do think that repopulating the gut with beneficial bacteria is an important thing to do. I’m not sure we need to keep drinking raw milk, as long as we’re not taking antibiotics. I’m inclined to drop our subscription because the price has almost doubled to nearly $13 a gallon this year. My husband resists, however.
    I would definitely consider dairy goats; I’m not sure yet if I would drink the milk unpasturized. I’d have to see how pristine a system I could set up.

  18. Joel says:

    My feeling is that you people who don’t get that food is in fact medicine simply don’t know a very simple sacred and ancient truth. And the reason that you don’t know this is because you haven’t really suffered enough with any kind of malady for longer than maybe a week when you got the FLU. Why is it that Hippocrates’ statement ‘Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.’ is still so prevalent among naturopathic schools all over the world, and revered by health seekers everywhere. Truth stands the test of time. LOL, I have suffered from, let’s see, schizophrenia, bipolar, leaky gut,candida, parasites, morgellon’s, prediabetes, liver gallbladder disease, strokes FOR MANY, MANY YEARS you name it and each and every single time it was food that brought me back from what felt like death. I STAND FIRM IN THE CAMP THAT RAW MILK IS MAGICAL only because I came to APPRECIATE THAT SIMPLE FACT. Our ancestors in ancient Egypt and India have depicted themselves under the cow, mouth to udder, sucking the milk out. I don’t know if this really happened or if they were expressing their profound passion for this sacred animal. The celts also have legends about the cows and that standing stones were washed with cow’s milk. My own personal experience with cow’s milk GOES WAY WAY BEYOND SIMPLY GETTING ME OUT OF A DIRE DIRE LIFE AND DEATH SITUATION AS IT CONNECTED ME WITH SOMETHING MUCH GREATER THAN JUST ME. In defense of Hippocrates, my ancestors who really GOT IT, and all the cows out there (both suffering in tight pens forced to eat grain or freely out in pasture graced with a mouthful of grass) raw milk is much more than medicine. It’s a sacred miracle, but you have to experience that. Don’t knock someone else’s experience, cuz that’s them. You don’t have to see it or believe it as THE TRUTH, just because someone else does.

  19. When I first started Parker on a blenderized diet for his G-tube carried nutrition, our surgeon made me promise up one end and down the other that I would use pasteurized goat milk rather than raw.

    Some kids (Parker included) have immune systems that can’t handle even the mildest potentials of raw milk.

    Our surgeon had seen too many kids in the hospital with ecoli, and other stuff from raw milk. Parents were thinking they were providing their children with the healthiest product available, and instead it ended up almost killing them.

    But I think any adult who chooses to drink raw milk should have that right. My Mom grew up on raw milk from her family’s cows.

    I try and add in probiotics by turning that milk into kefir or add RAW probiotics to Parker’s food. I can say the blenderized diet has been one of the best choices we have ever made in Parker’s health.

    We purchase our pasteurized goat’s milk from a local small dairy. They will sell you raw milk. But first they will try and talk you out of it and then make you sign a waiver.

    And this is from the cleanest dairy I have ever seen. They treat their goats like family.

  20. Levi Maderas says:

    Could spend hours reading your information

  21. akab says:

    Howdy! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects? Many thanks!

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