5 False Arguments for Raw Milk

Some people who enjoy raw milk also make up false claims that regular milk is more dangerous.

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Fads, Health

Skeptoid #383
October 8, 2013
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Today we're going to drop by our friendly local dairy farm and pick up a quart or two of what has become among the trendiest of foodie fancies, raw milk. Raw milk comes straight from the cow's udder and into your glass. It hasn't been homogenized or pasteurized and has nature's full complement of fat, making it a scrumptious, creamy treat. But many of its fans aren't satisfied with touting its flavor; they also claim it brings a host of miraculous health benefits hitherto undiscovered by science. Health experts, on the other hand, warn against consuming it in no uncertain terms, claiming that its unpasteurized bacterial load makes it an unacceptable risk. Is one or the other of these positions true, or do the real facts lie somewhere in between?

Some raw milk lovers take their passion very seriously, almost to the point of a religion. It's fine to like something, fine to uphold ideological positions, fine to advocate to others. But it's never OK to invent bad science to defend a position; and unfortunately, it appears that's exactly what some raw milk proponents do. Here are five common arguments that I found being repeatedly made about the supposed evils of regular pasteurized, homogenized milk:

1. Pasteurization destroys milk's nutrients: False.

As we know, regular milk is pasteurized, and this is the key difference between it and raw milk. Heating food to reduce spoilage has been in practice for about a thousand years, even though the mechanism wasn't well understood at first. We now know that heat kills the microbes found in food; including bacteria, fungi, algae, and a whole host of other organisms. Dangerous bacteria, like Salmonella and E. coli, are the most worrisome.

We could sterilize food if we wanted to kill everything in it, but complete sterilization would also cook or destroy the food. It was Louis Pasteur who discovered in 1864 that a much gentler heating for only a short time was sufficient to kill such a high percentage of the microbes that food spoilage was largely mitigated. Today milk is one of many, many foods that are pasteurized to increase their shelf life and safety. There are various processes for doing this, but the net result is that the milk is briefly heated and then cooled again. Opponents say that a side effect of this is to destroy essential nutrients in the milk.

To see whether this is true, we first have to ask "What are these nutrients?" So far, the answer to this has been wanting. The nutrients in milk are mainly energy from fat and lactose, and these are unaffected by pasteurization. Similarly, the molecular structures of proteins and minerals are far too robust to be damaged by the relatively low heat. One fact is that a number of vitamins are found in reduced concentration in pasteurized milk, including vitamins B1, B12, C and E. Though true, it's a fine trade-off, because milk of any kind is a relatively poor source for these vitamins. Vitamin A content is actually increased after pasteurization.

Often, advocates point to the fact that regular milk is fortified with vitamin D as evidence that pasteurization destroys that vitamin, so it has to be re-added. Untrue. Milk is not a source of vitamin D; it's one of many products that are fortified (such as breakfast cereals, orange juice, and baby formula), and have been since rickets was a major public health problem in the 1930s.

Lactobacillus is a bacterium found in our bodies, and also found in cow's milk. Lactobacillus does help with our digestion and the conversion of sugars to energy. And, it is killed by pasteurization. While some raw milk advocates raise alarm over this, there's no need. Lactobacillus thrives and reproduces itself inside our bodies. There is no need to drink milk to get it.

2. Homogenization makes milk less healthy: False.

Raw milk is not homogenized like regular milk. Homogenization is just what it sounds like; making the milk consistent from batch to batch, and making the fat level consistent throughout each serving.

Homogenization is a simple process. The first thing that's done is to mix together milk from different dairies, making it more consistent overall and day to day. The second part is making it consistent throughout. Raw milk separates into a light, fatty layer on top, and a heavier layer on the bottom. Homogenization turns it into an emulsion, in which the fat particles are tiny and evenly distributed throughout the liquid in such a way that they won't separate like raw milk. This is just a matter of forcing it through a fine strain which breaks up the fat chunks into tiny specks. Presto, a homogenous product.

Opposition to the homogenization of milk is manifold, yet so far, unsupported by any good science. Most of it sprang from a mass-market 1983 book, The XO Factor: Homogenized Milk May Cause Your Heart Attack, which put forth a number of fringe hypotheses which were quickly refuted in the medical literature but achieved much more mindshare among the general public. The book claimed, as its title suggests, that the homogenized fat particles were responsible for a lot of heart disease. Other claimed issues included digestion problems, but again, once controlled testing was done, it was found that people claiming hypersensitivity to homogenized milk reported just as many digestion problems no matter what kind of milk they were given.

Raw milk may avoid homogenization, but the result is just a taste preference. No health benefits or detriments have been discerned either way.

3. Unpasteurized raw milk has less bacteria: False.

The whole point of pasteurizing milk is to reduce the dangerous bacteria, obviously; so this claim really had me scratching my head wondering how on Earth someone could have come up with it. Here is an example of one article that claims raw milk is likely to have fewer bacteria than pasteurized milk, this one from a web site called "The Daily Green":

...Provided it comes from a reputable farm and has been processed clean, it should arrive with a fairly low bacterial count (all milk, even pasteurized, has some kind of bacterial count). What has been shown with raw milk is that if you introduce pathogens (i.e., bad bacteria) into it, they die off. They think it's because the "good" bacteria (i.e., natural probiotics) that are in the milk naturally kill the bad bacteria -- just the way good bacteria in our intestinal tract kill off bad bacteria.

So if I might paraphrase, the claim is that yogurt-style live probiotic bacteria in raw milk kills bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli; but pasteurization kills the probiotics and allows the Salmonella and E. coli to flourish. Fair enough; however, this claim is founded upon two factual errors.

The first error is that probiotics kill bad bacteria. It's true that bacteria do feed on each other a lot of the time, but this is a far messier battleground than the simplistic miracle claim of "good bacteria beat the bad bacteria". In fact, a 2010 study in Sweden found that patients infected with Salmonella did not have improved outcomes when taking probiotics.

The second error is that pasteurization kills only probiotics and not Salmonella and E. coli. In fact, targeting those harmful bacteria is the entire reason for pasteurization. If it kills harmless probiotics as well, no matter; we don't really care about that.

Either way, the evidence is very clear that raw milk carries far greater risk of bacterial infection than pasteurized milk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devotes an entire web site to reporting this increased danger:

Among dairy product-associated outbreaks reported to CDC between 1998 and 2011 in which the investigators reported whether the product was pasteurized or raw, 79% were due to raw milk or cheese. From 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. Most of these illnesses were caused by E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria. It is important to note that a substantial proportion of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children; among the 104 outbreaks from 1998-2011 with information on the patients' ages available, 82% involved at least one person younger than 20 years old.

Without qualification, raw milk is substantially more dangerous than pasteurized milk.

4. Raw milk cures all sorts of diseases: False.

It's pretty common to find in the raw milk literature the claim that conditions like eczema, asthma, and allergies are all successfully treated by drinking raw milk. This claim is completely absent from the scientific literature, but alternative medicine journals have asserted on many occasions that the bacteria in raw milk better challenges a child's immune system, and thus protects the child from such conditions. This is exactly how a vaccine works, so really all they're saying is that raw milk is a vaccine against eczema, asthma, and allergies.

There are no vaccines against these conditions — although "allergies" is such a broad category that it's impossible to make any blanket statements. If it were possible to vaccinate against eczema, asthma, and all allergies, then drug companies would have done it decades ago for immense profits, as they've done with the existing vaccines on the market. Make no mistake, medical science would love to be able to prevent these conditions.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

5. Grass-fed cows produce safer milk: False.

Most cows are fed grain, since it takes too much land and rare climatic conditions to let cows pasture graze. Although a lot of raw milk sources say that grass-fed cows produce milk that's higher in this vitamin or that vitamin or what have you, the only difference that's been consistently shown is that it contains a higher amount of a fatty acid called CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid. CLA is sold as a supplement in the alternative health industry as a cure for things ranging from cancer to obesity. There are a number of small studies supporting these uses in the alternative medicine literature.

CLA is found in all meat and dairy products, and it is indeed found in higher concentrations in grass-fed animals. But that doesn't necessarily make it a wonder drug. Unlike the alternative medicine literature, the science literature makes almost no mention of CLA outside of animal studies. There's certainly no clear evidence that CLA supplementation has any evident medical benefit, although it certainly isn't going to hurt you. In the real world, the tiny amount of CLA you'd get by drinking grass-fed cows' milk instead of grain-fed is almost certainly insignificant.

Regardless, it cannot be reasonably argued that the milk from grass-fed cows is "safer" than that from grain-fed cows.

The default feedback I'm going to get from this episode is that I am on the payroll of Big Dairy, paid to spread misinformation and put the small, enlightened dairy farmers out of business. The only people who pay me are my listeners, for pointing out bad information like this that can impact public health. Raw milk is indeed a health risk, but from what I've been able to find, it's not a huge one. It certainly puts fewer people in the hospital than bad meat. If you enjoy the flavor and don't mind the limited availability, I say go for it. But please, like it for what it is, and don't make up bad science to fool other people into sampling a potentially dangerous food.

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Editors. "Probiotic Without Effect Against Salmonella." Science Daily. ScienceDaily, LLC, 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 6 Oct. 2013. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100419113654.htm>

Langer, A., Ayers, T., Grass, J., Lynch, M., Angulo, F., Mahon, B. "Nonpasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws - United States, 1993–2006." Emerging Infectious Diseases. 21 Feb. 2012, Volume 18, Number 3: 385-391.

Macdonald, L., Brett, J., Kelton, D., Majowicz, S., Snedeker, K., Sargeant, J. "A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of pasteurization on milk vitamins, and evidence for raw milk consumption and other health-related outcomes." Journal of Food Protection. 1 Nov. 2011, Volume 74, Number 11: 1814-1832.

Paajanen, L., Tuure, T., Poussa, T., Korpela, R. "No difference in symptoms during challenges with homogenized and unhomogenized cow's milk in subjects with subjective hypersensitivity to homogenized milk." Journal of Dairy Research. 1 May 2003, Volume 70, Number 2: 175-179.

Reinagel, M. "Is Homogenized Milk Bad For You?" Quick and Dirty Tips. MacMillan Holdings, 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2013. <http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/homogenized-milk-bad-you>

Wallace, W. "The Udder Truth." Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 19 Jan. 2007. Web. 6 Oct. 2013. <http://www.salon.com/2007/01/19/raw_milk/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "5 False Arguments for Raw Milk." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 8 Oct 2013. Web. 31 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4383>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 101 comments

Thank you for writing this article. We are dairy farmers who buy our milk from the store. A few points for people to consider... cows on grass tend to lay in their manure more often and have dirtier udders than those that lay in a free-stall barn. More people need to speak out about the dangers of raw milk. Children and people are being hurt from this push for raw milk. We would get paid a lot more to sell our milk raw, so this comment is purely out of concern for people. It does not matter if you know the farmer, it doesn't matter if you see the parlor, the milking operation, etc... you cannot see what bacteria is in a cow's udder. Please if you purchase raw milk, pasteurize it quickly in an approved manner.

Anna, South Dakota
February 28, 2014 7:33am

I'm an ex-dairy farmer who agrees that milk should be pasteurized. However, the problem with pasteurized milk is that the government sanitation limits are much too lax. When I was in the business, milk to be pasteurized was allowed up to 850k bacteria/ml which is, in my opinion, filthy. Certified milk -- which can be consumed without pasteurization--was permitted 10k/ml. In my case, my milk which averaged about 1.2k bacteria/ml. had a much better taste even after pasteurization than supermarket milk. (Although that could also be because it was much fresher.) Never-the-less, most milk from the dairies should be much cleaner.

Roger, Limestone, TN
March 6, 2014 11:59pm

Daniel Rold! You require a source for your statement! You say you don't object to science but groundless claims about the state of it implies to me you don't understand a damn thing about how bacteria works!

Mr Dunning's biggest stake against Raw Milk is "it contains harmful bacteria, so we pastuerise it and so there is less bacteria", he even cited how many children (CHILDREN) nowadays fall ill due to Raw Milk. But hey, some of our progenitors were fine right? Obviously this is all weakly understood science, much like how you eat all your meat raw and never cook your eggs.

Damnit man, read a book, you're actively endangering kids with this kind of mind-set (source: 3rd point in the article, link and quote)

Jimmy, UK
March 29, 2014 9:26am

I can understand some of the disdain towards Raw Milk, I drank raw milk all my childhood with out any issues. When I started drinking industrial milk, things where very different from taste to digestive disorders. Is Industrial milk to blame? maybe not, is Raw milk better maybe not, but I do believe it's a freedom of choice if people want buy and drink what ever they feel like, they are completely free to do it. Google "unpasteurized milk, myths and evidence" from the Canadian center for disease control it's a 78 page study, see what other people not swayed by industry lobbyist have to say.

Miguel, Los Angeles
April 23, 2014 5:52pm

Hi, love the article. I agree with much of what you said, but disagree with the generalized remark that we have lactobacillus in our gut, it regenerates, and we don't need it. Or, I just know of exceptions- I'm referring here to what appears to be a rather growing population of people suffering from disturbances to their microbiome ecologies - more often when challenged immune systems (I realize the generalization there...) are compromised and those individuals are using large amounts or engaging in extended usage of certain antibiotic drugs. Competing organisms can establish themselves more easily and switch from a commensal state to a pathogenic one. Using products like raw milk (although storage conditions and age are significant variables in lactobacillus populations) can help put new Lactobacilli into the microbiome, and outcompete and drive down the numbers of the neuvo-pathogen to the point that it switched back to a commensal state.Some are purporting anecdotally at least, that they are experiencing an abatement of symptoms ascribed to their intake of raw milk (pasturization kills the Lactobacilli). Maybe yogurt is safer, anyway, repopulation is very complex but microbiome research is putting some serious doubt into some of the assumptions that we had about safety to our bodies, and it may be that some of these raw milk pioneers using it for this purpose will be the first to have beat out mainstream science (by doing home science) for a "functional" treatment.

David Dcaro, Manchester, NH
May 16, 2014 3:57pm

raw milk is healthy- but using common sense says to wash the udder and use clean utensils...if the animal has mastitis- treat the animal and throw away that milk
what I do not like is how our govt treats those who want raw milk- google raw milk raids and see how these people are treated like criminals, to the point of destroying their food and taking all their stuff and even computers, as if they were meth makers- show me the milk heads roaming the streets, stealing, forcing children into raw milk habits, ...instead use the police to go after real criminals like drug dealers, child rapist, etc.

esbee, ne tx
May 16, 2014 6:33pm

I grew up on raw milk, as did everyone in the 1950's. The big benefit is the cream cap. Very useful in cooking. No one got sick form it, at least to my knowledge.
It did not have the blue look of today's milk.
It baked well. No need for powdered milk in recipes.
East Indian people insist on it because they make butter, ghee, and cheese from it.
Grass fed cows lay in they're feces? Anything that lays on the ground is laying in somethings feces. We eat plants that lay in much more than that.
Our cattle does not belong in our environment. Bison does. So there are a host of problems with this alien species. The fat layer being one. The dumbing down of the cattle is problematic. Cows cannot survive in the wilds. They're hooves destroy the land, and they turn the wrong way in cold winds. Long horn is the best of the bulls.
The flavor of ranch raised Bison is inferior.
Please discuss these things with Wild Idea Bison. I would like to see the results of such a conversation.

jtuaim@gmail.com, Cleveland, Ohio
May 20, 2014 4:22pm

@jtuaim@gmail.com I grew up in the 50s too, and remember the milkman dropping off the milk at the door. You may want to check on the date when pasteurization of milk became common. The milk that came to my door was pasteurized. Homogenization came later. My mother would have refused to buy unpasteurized milk. She grew up on a small farm in the 1920s. They kept a few cows for their milk and sold what they couldn't use to neighbors. Years later, when dairy cows in their area were tested for Mycobacterium bovis, which can cause tuberculosis in humans, their cows were some of the few in the area that were free of the bacteria. Many people in her age group tested positive for exposure to TB because of the raw milk they drank. Most of them did not develop the disease, but some of the growing pains that people used to shrug off were due to TB in the bones. The moral of the story is that if you want to drink raw milk, make sure the cows and the milk are tested regularly.

mamadoc, Victoria, BC
June 20, 2014 2:52pm

I don't really care about the grand argument between drinking raw milk or running screaming from it, but have to point out that you said raw milk does not have vitamin D in it. Can you provide the study that shows that to be true?

Vitamins in Raw Milk:

Raw milk contains every known fat and water soluble vitamin. To get them all, make sure you drink whole raw milk or you'll miss those lost in the skimming process.

Vitamin C levels, already fairly low in cow's milk (typically less than 20mg/quart- about half the level found in human milk), have been shown to drop further when exposed to ultraviolet light such as from sunlight or fluorescent lights. Store it in the dark at home, and ask your store to look into UV filters for their cold-case lights. Here are some approximate but typical amounts of vitamins found in raw milk:

I found this list of vitamin content and evidence that the vitamin D is reduced greatly and necessary for the absorption of calcium, so therein lies the reason for fortifying with D.

Vitamin Content per quart (Approximate):

A__375ug
C__19mg
D__38IU
E__940ug
K__47ug
B1__425ug
B2__1650ug
Niacin__850ug
B6__470ug
Pantothenic acid__3300ug
Biotin__33ug
Folic acid__52ug
B12__4.25ug

I would love the source to show no vitamin D so I can correct the other source. One of you has to be wrong, right?

mike, spokane, wa
July 26, 2014 10:54am

It reminds me of these microwave studies where they essentially burned the meat in a microwave: it has a significant effect, but no-one is seriously use the levels they do.

Bill, Canberra
July 27, 2014 1:38am

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