As reported last week in the New York Times and elsewhere, more than half of the states in the US now allow the sale of raw milk. In some states, you can only buy raw milk at a farm, but in 14 states you can buy it in stores.
So why are some people so excited about raw milk? Well, the implication is that if it’s less processed, it must be better, right? After all, we recently learned that ultra-processed foods are pretty bad for you. (There’s pretty good evidence for that.) And milk is one of those products that people associate with health. In the first few months of life, we live entirely on milk – but that’s milk from a woman’s breast.
Cow’s milk is a different matter. It’s not nearly as, shall we say, clean.
It only took me a minute to find claims that raw milk has all kinds of benefits: apparently it helps you digest food better, it contains more vitamins and minerals, it strengthens your immune system, and it’s more better for lactose intolerant people. (I won’t link to any of those claims because they’re all false, and I don’t want to give more web traffic to scammers.)
Before listing some of the special properties of raw milk, let’s consider how it is processed. It is the main thing we do with milk pasteurization: a very simple process where the milk is heated just enough to kill any bacteria in it. It is not cooked, and the mild heat does not destroy any of the milk’s nutrients.
Pasteurization is named after the French scientist Louis Pasteur, who invented the process in the 1860s. It was originally used to preserve wine, but people eventually discovered that it worked just as well for milk and other foods. In the 1860s, people didn’t even know that bacteria were the cause of disease, and Pasteur was one of the pioneers who realized that.
So what does raw milk have in it? Well, it can carry a long list of nasty bacteria, including those that cause tuberculosis, brucellosis, scarlet fever, salmonella. And of course it is E. coliincluding strains that can cause severe diarrhea.
Bacteria just love milk, it turns out. They are overflowing with raw milk, and not much of it is good for humans. Fortunately for most of us, pasteurization kills bacteria very effectively.
And there’s one more special thing you’ll find in raw milk that you won’t find in pasteurized milk: cow’s milk. Funny thing, though: of the ads I found for the benefits of raw milk, none of them mentioned this.
So sure, get your milk raw and alive like it’s 1850 again! Never mind that pasteurization has saved millions of lives. Seriously, people: there is absolutely no reason to drink raw milk. And states that allow the sale of raw milk are putting their own people’s health at risk.