At the Organic Consumers Association home office in Finland, Minnesota, nestled in the woods between Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, our office lunches and snacks are always organic, as you might expect. We purchase food from our local food co-ops and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) buying club.
Our refrigerators and pantry contain seasonal produce, eggs, wild rice, home-brewed beer, fermented vegetables and maple syrup, produced or harvested by our staff or neighbors. We also stock organic and fair trade-certified chocolate bars, tea and coffee, with donations for these products going to support our local community center, where we hold potlucks and occasional meetings.
But the most popular section of our fridge in the kitchen area of the OCA office is the milk and dairy section where we have non-pasteurized, non-homogenized raw milk, yoghurt, cream and butter, purchased directly from a local grass-fed, organic dairy. Although our raw milk products (in reusable glass Mason jars) do not carry a USDA organic seal, we all know, because we regularly visit the local organic farmer that we buy from, that these products are not only organic, grass-fed, delicious and healthy, but in fact better than the pasteurized and/or homogenized USDA certified organic dairy products sold in our local food coops.
We advocate that consumers buy certified organic products whenever possible. But for consumers in Minnesota and other states, where you can’t walk into your grocery store and buy raw milk, we feel it’s time to explain why we believe grass-fed raw milk and dairy products, whether certified or not, are actually better for you, better for the animals, and better for the planet than any other dairy products.
By all means, keep buying and consuming organic foods, today and every day, and boycott GMO and factory-farmed products. But also keep in mind that raw milk and dairy (which are always grass-fed rather than raised on feedlots and GMO grain) are among the best foods you can buy.
What’s on the label?
If you read and compare the labels of commercial milk brands sold in supermarkets, and produced by cows raised on feedlots homogenized and fed grain, chances are there are two words that those labels will have in common: pasteurized and homogenized. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that raw milk should go through these processing methods. Otherwise, the CDC says, you might expose yourself to diseases and foodborne illnesses.
But is there any truth to these claims?
Let’s further examine pasteurization and homogenization to shed more light on what these practices do to dairy products, and your health.
What is pasteurization?
Pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid to below the boiling point to destroy harmful pathogens in it. It was developed in 1856 by Louis Pasteur initially to prevent fermented wine from spoiling and turning to vinegar. Pasteur determined the exact time and temperature required to eliminate the harmful microorganisms in the wine while still retaining the wine’s flavor. He patented the technique.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that milk was commercially pasteurized. Europe adopted pasteurization first, followed by the U.S. in the early 1900s. The need for milk pasteurization arose because of increased production and distribution, which led to outbreaks of milkborne illnesses, including typhoid fever, scarlet fever, diphtheria diarrhea and other gastrointestinal diseases.
According to Milk Facts, there are two reasons why milk is pasteurized:
“1. To increase milk safety for the consumer by destroying disease causing microorganisms (pathogens) that may be present in milk.
2. To increase keeping (sic) the quality of milk products by destroying spoilage microorganisms and enzymes that contribute to the reduced quality and shelf life of milk."
The original pasteurization method, known as vat pasteurization, simply involved heating milk (or other liquids) in a large tank for at least 30 minutes. This is now only used for preparing milk for making starter cultures, as well as in the processing of cheese, buttermilk, yogurt and some ice cream mixes.
Today, the most common methods of pasteurization are High Temperature Short Time (HTST) pasteurization, Higher Heat Shorter Time (HHST) pasteurization, and Ultra Pasteurization. HTST uses metal plates and hot water to increase milk temperatures to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit for no less than 15 seconds, followed by rapid cooling. HHST follows the same process, but with slightly different equipment, a higher temperature, and a shorter time. Meanwhile, Ultra Pasteurization products are heated to no less than 280 degrees Fahrenheit for two seconds, resulting in milk with longer shelf-life, but still needing refrigeration.
Aside from wine and dairy products, other products that are commonly pasteurized today include beer, honey, almonds, fruit juices, eggs, and some brands of kimchi and sauerkraut.
At a glance, it seems like an efficient and cutting-edge technique. But the question remains: Does your milk still need to be pasteurized?
Pasteurization became routine because of unsanitary CAFO practices
During the early 20th century, the increase in livestock in industrial dairy farms led to unsanitary and poor hygiene practices. This resulted in the rampant spread of disease-causing bacteria to become rampant, which contaminated the milk and infected people. That was the main reason why pasteurization became widespread.
Today, most commercial milk that comes from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) still needs to be pasteurized because the conditions in these overcrowded farms have worsened exponentially, leading CAFOs becoming hotbeds for pathogenic bacteria contamination.
What’s more, CAFO cows are fed antibiotics in order to “combat” the proliferation of diseases. In fact, 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock and poultry. This compounds the problem, as the overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic-resistance, creating stronger pathogenic bacteria that can cause a litany of diseases.
Pasteurization is an outdated practice. If federal government agencies like the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) would properly regulate the dairy industry and uphold safety measures for natural livestock farming, allowing animals to live and grow the way nature intended, we could do away with pasteurization.
What about homogenization?
Homogenization is an entirely separate process that’s usually done after pasteurization. The first patent of a homogenizer was in 1899 by Auguste Gaulin. Gaulin’s homogenizer consisted of a 3-piston pump in which the milk was forced through one or more hair-like tubes under pressure. But why exactly does milk need to be homogenized?
When you buy unhomogenized milk, you’ll notice that the milk fat will separate and form a layer of cream above the rest of the milk. You will need to shake the bottle to mix them together again. Homogenization prevents this from occurring. This fairly newer technology (compared to pasteurization) is done entirely for aesthetic purposes.
When milk is homogenized, it is pushed through a fine filter at very high pressures (4,000 pounds per square inch). This causes the fat globules to become 10 times (or more) smaller, and allows them to be evenly dispersed and suspended throughout the milk.
Today, homogenization is said to be useful to large-scale dairy farms, as the process lets them to mix milk from different herds. Like pasteurization, homogenization prolongs the shelf-life of milk, so it can be safely shipped to other places. It also makes it easy for dairy farms to filter out the fat and create two percent, one percent, and skim milk.
Yet, many natural experts say that homogenization is “the worst thing dairymen did to dairy.”
The truth is both homogenization and pasteurization can have severe repercussions not only on the quality of milk, but on your health as well.
The unseen, damaging effects of pasteurization and homogenization
When you drink milk that has gone through these processes, you’re basically getting a “dead” beverage that is lacking in nutrients. Although pasteurized and homogenized organic milk is certainly better than non-organic milk, organic grass-fed raw milk is even better. The nutritional bottom line is that pasteurization and homogenization destroy nutrients and proteins, make healthy fats rancid, and cause free radicals to form in the body. They denature milk by altering its chemical structure.
When milk undergoes pasteurization, enzymes like lactase, galactase, and phosphate, essential for the assimilation of nutrients like lactose, galactase, and phosphate respectively, are destroyed. Without these, milk becomes very difficult to digest. In fact, the lack of lactase in pasteurized milk is the cause of lactose intolerance. Unfortunately, the pancreas cannot produce these enzymes, so it becomes overstressed–a risk factor for diabetes and other diseases.
Pasteurization also diminishes the vitamins in milk, such as B6, B12, and C. It kills beneficial bacteria essential in digestion, leading to constipation. What’s more, the pathogenic bacteria killed by pasteurization are not removed, so their dead cell fragments remain in the milk, igniting immune reactions that cause milk allergies.
A Harvard study found that pasteurized milk from CAFOs may contain dangerously high levels of estrone sulfate, an estrogen compound that is linked to testicular, prostate and breast cancer.
Meanwhile, homogenization affects the structure of proteins in raw milk. When the fat molecules become smaller, they become “capsules” for substances that can bypass digestion. Proteins, for instance, are not broken down as they should be, and end up becoming absorbed in the bloodstream. This can lead to a reaction against the arterial wall, to which the body responds to by creating a layer of cholesterol as a form of protection. When this happens regularly, long-term risks may arise. Homogenized milk proteins may also resemble a human protein and trigger autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis (MS) and diabetes.
A widely held popular theory by Dr. Kurt A. Oster, which was studied from the early 1960s until the mid-1980s, also claims that homogenization can lead to heart disease. Dr. Oster believed that the enzyme xanthin oxidase (XO), created during homogenization, ends up in heart and arterial tissue and destroys the protective membrane called plasmogen, leading to arterial lesions and plaque formation.
Bottom line: Raw milk is the healthiest choice
Given these damaging effects, it should be clear that there’s no other healthier choice than raw milk from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows raised on clean and well-run farms. Not only are the nutrients and proteins in this milk intact, but raw milk and cheese make from raw milk contain good bacteria that are essential for a healthy digestion and offer protection against disease-causing bacteria. Plus, raw milk:
• Is loaded with more than 60 digestive enzymes, growth factors, and immunoglobulins (antibodies)
• Is rich in cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA); it also boosts metabolism
• Contains beneficial raw fats, vitamins (A,B, C, D, E, and K), proteins, and amino acids, all in a highly bioavailable and digestible form
• Has a balanced blend of minerals like calcium, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium that are well-absorbed by the body, thanks to live
Sadly, raw milk is routinely vilified by government health agencies today, and is dubbed a “threat to public health.” This despite the fact that CDC data shows that 412 people became ill because of pasteurized and homogenized milk, but only 116 illnesses were linked to raw milk.
Remember that where your milk comes from has a significant impact on its quality and safety. It’s best to get your raw milk from a local organic farm to ensure that you’re getting a safe, high-quality product. Keep an eye out for these factors:
• Low pathogenic bacteria count (the farmer tests his milk regularly for pathogens)
• Cows are grass-fed and raised naturally, in accordance with the seasons, and are not given antibiotics and growth hormones
• The milk is immediately chilled after milking
Can’t find raw milk? Go for organic, grass-fed milk
Although most U.S. states allow some form of raw milk sales, many people still find it hard to source this product. In fact, it is the only food banned in interstate commerce in the country. For this reason, many consumers cannot get their hands on raw milk. If you live in a state where it’s hard to find raw milk, the best alternative is organic, grass-fed milk.
Compared to conventionally produced milk from CAFO cows, organic milk is significantly superior from a nutritional standpoint, as the farmers are required to follow organic farming methods, such as providing their cows with a natural, grass-based, 100-percent organic diet. The livestock do not receive growth hormones or pesticide-laden GMO feed, and they are not pushed beyond their natural limits.
A grain-based diet changes a cow’s body composition, such as altering their balance of essential fats. One study demonstrates this: an international team of experts led by Newcastle University in U.K. found that both organic milk and meat have around 50 percent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than their conventionally produced counterparts.
The team reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat, and saw that the fatty acid composition and concentration of certain essential minerals and antioxidants have a striking difference from those in conventional milk. The findings of this study, the largest of its kind, were published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Another research, conducted in 2013, revealed that organic milk contained 25 percent less omega-6 fats and 62 percent more omega-3 fats than conventional milk. This included all types of omega-3 fats: linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosapentaenoic acid (DHA). The researchers also observed that test subjects who drank conventional milk over a one-year period had a 2.5 higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than those who drank organic milk. This imbalance can set the stage for a number of health problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, diabetes, and Alzheimers’ disease.
However, keep in mind that most organic milk in the U.S. is still pasteurized and homogenized, which may damage some of their nutrients. So if you have a choice, and if you can access it, always go for high-quality raw milk.
As with any food, the most natural always beats processed, so opt for raw milk instead of pasteurized and homogenized milk. The benefits are astounding, plus you’ll get a multitude of nutrients that you won’t find in any other beverage.
Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.
Elaine Catherine R. Ferrer is a contributing writer to the Organic Consumers Association and Mercola.com.