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The Truth About Milk: Raw vs Pasteurized

 Editor's note: The following article is the first of a four-part series that will appear monthly in the nutrition section of our website. It is based on the first of four recent lectures in a Seminar Series on Raw Milk hosted by Rutgers University Agriculture Experiment Station.

Mark McAfee is owner of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. (www.organicpastures.com) in Fresno, California. His high-energy talk February 6 was entitled "Raw Milk: Mother Nature's Inconvenient Truth�" Raw milk is milk in its natural state, McAfee explained, as it comes from the cow, without heat treatment or pasteurization. Pasteurization is used to extend shelf life and to immobilize certain bacteria, he said, and public health authorities generally appear convinced that this process is highly desirable.

McAfee's overarching theme can be summarized as the coexistence of people and milk and bacteria. Even when produced under the most sanitary conditions, he said, it is normal for milk to contain some bacteria, and human societies have been coexisting and benefiting from these bacteria in the milk for thousands of years. Fermented milks are and have been important foods in many cultures for their nutrient value, McAfee informed the crowd, for their superior digestibility, and for the preservation that fermentation, a bacterial process, provides. Today products are marketed as containing "probiotics," as if this is something brand new. Of course, McAfee said, various active bacteria have always been in these foods, "only the standardization and taxonomy are new. Some of what he termed "Mother Nature's truths about bacteria" follow. Bacteria...

  • are earth's oldest life forms
  • are everywhere
  • are essential for human survival
  • comprise more than 90 percent of the cells in the human body.

It's no small wonder, then, that McAfee calls the human being "Bacterio sapiens" and suggests that public obsession with killing bacteria misdirects efforts at improving public health because relatively few bacteria are pathogenic. By constantly sterilizing and pasteurizing and disinfecting, he said, we tip the balance in favor of the pathogen. Campylobacter has always been found in the environment but only relatively recently has it been called a "pathogen." What changed, he asked, and is it possible that reducing the microbial biodiversity of the human body has created more disease than it has prevented?

Raw milk is another of Mother Nature's truths, McAfee asserted. Raw milk is "new" only in the sense that it used to just be called "milk," without the adjective implying that there is something unusual about it. Pasteurization is what's relatively new. In American cities in the early 1900s, pasteurization permitted the safe use of poor quality milk by destroying pathogens introduced by its production method. That's a plus if you need to use poor quality milk, McAfee said. But milk has always been the first food of newborn mammals so how could it be intrinsically hazardous? Human societies developed and prospered upon (raw) milk usually milk of ruminant species adapted to living on grass due to the bacteria in their gut. Grasslands, he said, "provided that we respect the appropriate stocking density," are a wonderful, low energy, sustainable ecosystem.

When mothers nurse their babies, do we make a point of saying that the babies are drinking "raw milk," McAfee asked rhetorically.

Raw milk is not a single substance, he said, stressing that it is important to distinguish raw milk intended for direct consumption from raw milk intended for further processing. The former has been variously called "physicians milk," "babies milk," and "certified milk." Milk intended for direct consumption should meet higher standards of production, he said, beginning with the genetics, feeding, bedding and housing of the cows. McAfee uses rotational grazing of well-managed pastures and keeps his cows mostly outdoors, on a diverse forage ecosystem. He believes pasture-fed cattle do not have the acidified rumen of the grain-fed industrial dairy cow so they are less susceptible to developing acid-tolerant gut bacteria. Without antibiotic use, McAfee said, there is no problem with evolution of antibiotic resistance. Conjugated linoleic acids are highest in milk from pasture-fed cows, and the vitamins, natural fats and enzymes are all intact.

According to McAfee, it is difficult to get at the truth because so much research is little more than advertising, self-interested and commercial. Stories offered by those who have been helped by taking charge of their own health are largely dismissed as "anecdotal." But if you take a big collection of anecdotes and add statistical analysis, you have a study, said McAfee. He believes this kind of research would actually benefit the public so it is appropriate that the National Institute of Health or other public agency should fund such work. Unfortunately, most of this kind of preventative health research remains unstudied for lack of funding.

Many anecdotes about raw milk involve people reporting that chronic diseases such as arthritis, Crohn's disease, asthma, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome or chronic ear infections are eliminated by a change to drinking raw milk. These diseases are lumped under the heading "autoimmune problems," McAfee said, and they are generally unexplained and uncured by modern, "Western" medicine. McAfee shared one such anecdote about Kimeli, a Maasai tribesman from east Africa who came to the United States to study at Stanford University. Kimeli grew up drinking milk (known in the U.S. as "raw milk"), but after arriving in the states got sicker and sicker and was diagnosed with severe lactose intolerance and Crohn's disease. Ultimately it was recommended that part of his colon be removed. He resisted this idea and began to drink "raw milk" from Organic Pastures dairy. His lactose intolerance somehow did not apply to this milk. For the better part of a year he drank a daily half gallon of raw whole milk. Kimeli, McAfee said, remains convinced that this food is what allowed his damaged insides to heal.

McAfee advised the audience that it is illegal to say that anything other than a recognized pharmaceutical product can cure a disease and reports that he was fined several thousand dollars for putting such customer testimonials (anecdotes) on his business website. (Presumably, private citizens are still allowed to share their own stories provided that the anecdotes do not appear on commercial websites.)

McAfee's take-home message is that people can educate themselves directly and make health choices without the intervention of so-called "experts"� An informed consumer, he said, is always his best customer.