Milk, be it from cows, goats, sheep, camels, or buffaloes, has had a place in the human diet since antiquity. It is accessible, it is available all year round, and if breastmilk is the best food for babies, animal milk is the next best thing, because both are nutritionally similar.
However, the pasteurized milk we get today is a far cry from the real stuff. That’s because milk undergoes harsh processing before it gets to us.
We can’t seem to leave any food in its normal, natural state. That’s all too true in the case of milk. Natural raw milk is not a homogenous liquid. The lighter milk fat stays at the top as cream while the heavier solids remain in the lower liquid portion. The pasteurized milk we get is homogenized to give it a uniform texture and smooth feel. As part of homogenization, the milk fat is skimmed off the top even in the case of full fat milk. The chilled milk is then churned with specific amounts of milk fats to get different types of milk such as full-fat, 2%, and low-fat. It is then fortified with certain nutrients, including Vitamins A and D.
Pasteurization kills off the microbes in the milk, keeping the milk from spoiling, but does it make the milk healthier? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention would have us believe that pasteurized milk is not only healthy but that it is the only safe milk to have.
However, what you may not know is that pasteurization involves heating the milk to a high temperature to destroy most of the bacteria and viruses and then rapidly cooling it to retard their growth and proliferation. Developed by Louis Pasteur during mid 19th century, this process was originally meant for preventing wines from becoming sour as they matured. He advocated heating them up to 140 F for 30 minutes, a technique known as LTLT or Low Temperature-Long Time. But today’s pasteurization processes such as HTST (High Temperature-Short Time) and UHT (Ultra High Temperature) involve much higher temperatures.
We are assured by the government agencies that no significant nutritional changes take place during pasteurization. But advocates of raw milk disagree. The truth is that pasteurized and homogenized milk usually requires fortification with vitamins and minerals to bring it on par with natural milk. Doesn’t this indirectly prove that there’s nutrient depletion happening during the processing of milk?
Why do people drink raw milk?
There could be many reasons why organic raw milk, butter and cheese are favored by many. A 15 % increase in raw dairy production and consumption has been witnessed in the last few years. However, despite the ban of raw milk in 18 plus states, and fear mongering by government agencies including, more people are converting to raw milk than ever. It can be nothing short of positive personal experience by the users.
In fact, those who start on raw milk, more often than not, get hooked on, not just because of its delicious taste. There are impressive health benefits too.
Milk is a wholesome food containing fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals required for the normal growth and functioning of our body. It has a number of different sugars, some providing instant energy while others offering a more sustained release. Raw milk has water soluble vitamins as well as fat soluble ones, thanks to its high milk fat content. It is rich in minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids, including all the eight essential ones, along with vitamins and enzymes necessary for their digestion and absorption by the body.
Besides all the nutrients directly available from milk, the microbes naturally contained in raw milk provide some extra benefits. They add to the gastrointestinal flora, with the oligosaccharides, lactose, maltose, and sucrose, in milk acting as prebiotic food, feeding them and millions of other microbes living in our digestive tract. We cannot absorb many of the essential nutrients from our food without the help of these microorganisms. The oligosaccharides also provide binding sites for the microbes, effectively preventing them from binding on to the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract.
The bioactive component of milk, which includes the active enzymes and beneficial microbes, is available only in raw milk, and could very well be behind the energy boost it provides.
Clearer skin, shinier hair and nails
Skin, hair and nails are often the first indicators how changes in diets affect you. It is not surprising that people notice positive changes in the texture and clarity of skin as well as strength of nail and hair almost immediately on switching to raw milk.
Cow’s milk and goat’s milk are particularly rich in the B-complex vitamin Biotin which strengthens the hair and nail. A fibrous protein keratin is the main component of hair, nail and the outer layer of skin. A steady supply of amino acids is required for keratin production. Vitamins D and A are important too.
Milk is generally thought to be white in color, which is quite true in the case of the pasteurized milk most of us are familiar with, but raw milk of grass-fed cows has a yellow tint. It comes from beta carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A that is derived from the green grass pastured cows eat. This vitamin makes your skin, nails and hair healthy and strong.
The Vitamin E in milk supports the production of collagen, the key protein in skin. These fat soluble vitamins are abundant in milk butter. That is why full-fat raw milk is so good for your skin, hair and nails as well as your eyes.
Reduction in allergies & asthma
There are lots of people who have given up on dairy products altogether because of severe allergies. People suffering from eczema, asthma, and chest congestion often get relief when they remove all dairy products from their diet. However, when they are introduced to raw milk, they come to realize that it was not the milk that was at fault, but the way it was produced and made available to them.
Raw milk is usually sourced from small organic farms where the cows are pastured free-ranch style and fed on grass and hay, the most natural foods for these herbivores. The milk of cows grazing on grass out in the open contains higher levels of nutrients, including essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K.
On the other hand, cows in large industrial farms are confined to stalls with no freedom of movement. They are fed mainly grains and high-protein soy products and perpetually connected to the milking apparatus via wires and tubes. Because of the crowded conditions in these facilities, disease outbreaks are common, and the cows are administered antibiotics routinely as a preventive measure (prophylaxis). These antibiotics as well as the pesticides in their mass-produced feeds end up in the milk.
It goes without saying that milk produced in these establishments requires pasteurization because the antibiotics kill off the beneficial bacteria that keep pathogens in check. But many of the real benefits of milk are lost in the process.
What damage does pasturization really do?
Let’s take a look at the nutritional changes that could potentially take place when milk is heated to high temperatures.
Pasteurization denatures proteins
Proteins generally tend to change in structure when heated – you can actually see the proteins in eggs quickly coagulating and solidifying on heating. Similar structural changes happen to the proteins in milk when heated, although they are not as apparent in their suspended state.
Take the case of casein. It is a phosphoprotein that forms the bulk of milk proteins. It forms micelles with Calcium ion (Ca2+) at the center as a binding factor. When heated to high temperatures, calcium phosphate gets precipitated out of solution which changes the micelle structure of casein irreversibly. Casein that is structurally altered during the process of pasteurization can cause allergies.
Pasteurization reduces enzymatic activity in the milk
Milk contains many enzymes that are necessary for the proper utilization of milk nutrients. They also protect the milk from spoilage. For instance, Lactoperoxidase is an enzyme with antibacterial properties. Another enzyme called Lactoferrin preserves the iron content of the milk by making it unavailable to pathogenic microbes. Besides, it stimulates the immune system. It also has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, selectively destroying pathogenic bacteria and viruses while sparing beneficial microbes. But pasteurization inactivates the enzymes and reduces the activity of lactoperoxidase and lactoferrin.
When raw milk is left to clabber, it remains edible, becoming even more easily digestible, thanks to the Lactobacillus present in the milk. On the other hand, pasteurized milk spoils when left at room temperature because fungi and other undesirable microbes proliferate in the absence of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium to check their population.
Pasteurization destroys natural antibodies & other bioactive components
Antibodies such as IgG and IgM present in raw milk provide passive immunity. They destroy many of the pathogens in milk besides stimulating the immune system. They also help avoid allergies to milk protein antigens.
Milk also contains some other bioactive components, mainly white blood cells such as neutrophils and macrophages that kill bacteria by oxidative techniques or phagocytosis. Pasteurization destroys the beneficial bioactivity of raw milk.
Pasteurization reduces other inherent benefits of milk
Cow’s milk has around 400 different types of fatty acids, among them some medium chain fatty acids that disrupt the cell walls of pathogens. Phospholipids and sphingolipids in milk have antibacterial and cancer protective properties. These cell wall components prevent the absorption of bacteria as well as bacterial toxins into the intestines. Homogenization of milk and pasteurization alter the structure of the milk, rendering the fatty acids inactive.
The downside of using raw milk
Milk being a highly nutritious fluid, many pathogenic bacteria and viruses thrive in it. Tuberculosis and Brucella abortus spreading through contaminated milk was a real threat at the time pasteurization was first adopted in the milk industry. However, they no longer pose any threat in developed countries. Some common pathogens responsible for foodborne illnesses, like E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter, can contaminate milk and cause food poisoning with serious consequences.
However, this risk can be mitigated by maintaining high hygiene standards in dairy farms and careful handling of milk post production. Immediate chilling after milking should ensure safe raw milk. Those who enjoy this nature’s bounty clearly feel that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Some safety statistics
If the debate over raw milk is all about safety, let’s take a look at the statistics.
Every year, 128,000 Americans (1 in 6) are affected by food-borne illnesses with around 3,000 succumbing to them. Only 15% of these deaths are attributed to dairy and eggs and unpasteurized dairy may be responsible for a very small fraction of this.
According to CDC, in the period between 1993 and 2006, there were 121 dairy-associated disease outbreaks. Non-pasteurized dairy was implicated in 73 of those outbreaks, and they resulted in 1,571 cases, including 202 hospitalizations as well as 2 deaths.
Compare this to the rate of catastrophic injury in the popular sport of baseball. Between 1996 and 2006, there were over 2 deaths per year on the average among young players alone. It is considered very low risk, however.
In a country where 37,000 people die in car crashes a year, with over 10,000 of them in drunken driving crashes, those who want to drive cars are allowed to drive and those who want to drink continue to do so.
Youngsters who like to play baseball can do it without any restriction. Then why should people who like to consume raw milk and farmers who want to meet this rising demand be persecuted?
Raw milk can be easily pasteurized at home by heating it for 30 minutes and then chilling it in the refrigerator to increase its shelf life. This is done in many countries where the general population is still catered to by small farmers who directly supply to them. Big corporations and the need to protect their self-interests do not come into the picture here.
The bottom line
Pasteurization is profitable for the companies because it helps them preserve the milk for longer, but at what cost? If concern for public safety is indeed behind the ban on raw milk, this deliberate denaturing of one of nature’s greatest bounty should be made illegal.