Is Raw Milk Safe to Drink?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on August 15, 2010 · 20 comments

In a word, no. Drinking raw milk is playing Russian roulette with your health.

The main difference between raw milk and pasteurized milk is the amount of bacteria. Proponents of raw milk feel it’s more nutritious and contains antimicrobial properties. But raw milk can be very dangerous — especially for pregnant women, children, or those with a weakened immune system.

Raw milk can be a host to a wide array of pathogens, including but not limited to, staphylococcus aureus, campylobacter jejuni, E. coli, listeria monocytogenes and yesinia enterocolitica. In the more serious cases food-borne illness can cause kidney failure, premature births, and death. Since 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 831 illnesses, 66 hospitalizations and 1 death associated with raw milk.

Many raw milk vendors confidently tell customers that their milk is safe because they have never been involved in a food-borne outbreak. But “never had” a problem doesn’t mean “never will.” In 2003, for example, the only dairy in Ohio lawfully allowed to sell raw, which had been in operation since 1958, was implicated in food-borne illness traced to raw milk and cream. This dairy has since voluntarily given up its license to sell raw milk. Farms are not sterile environments, so all raw milk products have the potential to harbor harmful organisms.

Supporters of raw milk believe it is a powerful health food, containing substances that can naturally kill off other harmful things. Yet, none of the health benefits they claim have been verified by scientific research, and many of the negatives regarding pasteurization are simply not true.

Many believe pasteurization causes lactose intolerance, the inability to digest milk sugar. Yet, the same amount of lactose is found in both pasteurized and raw milk. Lactose intolerance is a condition a person is born with and the symptoms will occur when too much of any type of milk is consumed.

Let’s debunk some other milk myths:

  • Pasteurization does not cause allergies. The milk proteins that cause allergic reactions are the same in both raw and pasteurized milk.
  • Pasteurized milk does not cause arthritis. There is, however, research connecting reactive arthritis and food-borne illness.
  • Pasteurization does not cause autism. There is a belief that pasteurization converts casein (a milk protein) into a dangerous molecule that can cause brain injury. Casein proteins are largely unaffected by pasteurization, and the casein in raw and pasteurized milk are virtually the same.
  • Pasteurization does not reduce the nutritional value of milk. It does destroy a tiny amount of vitamin C. Milk, however, is not a significant source of vitamin C, containing only 2 milligrams per cup. Pasteurized milk is also a good source of thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, B12, vitamin D, and calcium.

Bottom line: Don’t be a gambler with your health. Pasteurization kills most (but never all) bacteria so milk is safe to drink and cheese, yogurt and ice cream made from pasteurized milk is safe to eat. Don’t use unpasteurized milk or cream. Don’t eat yogurt, pudding, ice cream or frozen yogurt made from unpasteurized milk. And avoid soft cheeses – brie, camembert, queso fresco, queso blanco – make from unpasteurized milk.

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