The Raw Milk Debate: Rawness and Rationality

Confused about the potential benefits and risks of drinking raw milk? Consider both sides when weighing the pros and cons of enjoying raw milk.

| October/November 2011

Milk Bottle and Glass

The debate continues to rage over raw milk: Is it a health panacea or a dangerous substance? A one-size-fits-all answer may not exist.


Every time I hear any discussion of raw milk, I know I can look forward to repetitions of a few misleading claims on both sides, with no attention to taste (which is my agenda).

Most of those who want consumers to have unfettered access to raw milk insist that pasteurization destroys nutritional value. Sometimes they also assert that raw milk tastes better. Neither claim is unconditionally true. On the other side, adherents of pasteurization are bent on warning the public that without it we can expect the unhindered spread of milk-borne pathogens. This, too, is only partly true.

Certainly a glass of raw milk sampled at the farm is going to taste different from supermarket milk. But pasteurization is only one of the industrial processing steps responsible for the difference. Virtually all the pasteurized milk that reaches us has been separated, recombined and homogenized. These steps do more to denature milk than anything else that happens to it. The creamier mouthfeel and fresher flavor of whole raw milk at a well-run farm reflect not just actual freshness but the fact that the basic milk structure is intact. You can get nearly the same effect from unhomogenized pasteurized milk — at least, if it comes to you fresh and was not ultrapasteurized.

This brings us to the second great factor usually left out of the debate: At one time, milk was pasteurized at a low temperature for a long time, which eliminated harmful bacteria with minimal impairment of flavor. The faster, more cost-effective approaches that are almost universal today impart a slightly more cooked flavor while denaturing some of the proteins — but it’s hard to attribute particular flavor effects to these techniques alone, because they are almost always carried out together with homogenization.

Then there’s the intrinsic quality of the milk itself. Rawness and pasteurization have nothing to do with the fact that milk produced by farmers with sane priorities tastes better than milk cranked out with an eye only to volume.

The most frequent pro-raw-milk argument I hear is that pasteurization destroys the vitamin C and most enzymes in raw milk. Quite true — but not of great importance to anyone’s health. Compared with other plentiful sources of vitamin C, milk contains little in the first place. As for the enzymes that disappear, they are an aid to the digestive systems of newborn calves and don’t need to concern nonbovines — except cheesemakers, who are sorely handicapped by the enzymatic changes caused by pasteurization.

7/25/2017 2:13:47 PM

"Pasteurizing kills all the nutrients." Wally, that does not appear to be true. Please support your statement. "Rawness and pasteurization have nothing to do with the fact that milk produced by farmers with sane priorities tastes better than milk cranked out with an eye only to volume.” This sounds to me that is biased against mass production that somehow must taste inferior. "But every year more and more cases also come to light of pathogens spread through mass-distribution channels.” Not at all quantified. For example, if the risk of getting ill from raw milk is 1:10,000 but the risk of getting sick from milk through "mass-distribution channels” is 1:1,000,000 , then I will take the mass-distributed milk any day. But if the odds of both are similar, I would take the raw milk. As far as I know, the mass production of our food is the safest it has been in history. The article presents a bias agains "mass-distribution channels” as if it is somehow inherently evil. While many of us cling to the warm fuzzies of mom, pop, and children farms in some sort of Walton like atmosphere, it essentially no longer exists. Even 'Organic' is mass produced now. I will support my local farms when possible. But much of our food needed to feed the people in our large metropolitan areas must come through mass production.

5/14/2015 7:58:45 PM

I worked in Quality Control for seven months in a dairy. Milk is the most controlled food substance we eat. We ran test to check for antibiotics on every lot of milk we took in. If milk is sold raw what guarantee does a consumer have that they don't have tainted milk? If they have allergies to those antibiotics the results could be deadly. I know you would say that organic whole milk producers would never use antibiotics, but I am not so sure.

laurie townsend klem
2/29/2012 10:18:21 PM

John, naturalnews is not a good source for info it is very heavy on the conspiracy theories.

linda davis
2/29/2012 8:05:39 PM

I grew up on raw milk on our farm. Pasteurizing kills all the nutrients. People should have a choice and not be forced by politics to eat and drink highly processed foods! Raw milk diffidently needs to be processed in clean facilities. Store milk not handled properly can cause many problems so raw milk should NOT be outlawed. Get your fresh raw milk local who has their facility cleanliness rated and take care of it properly afterwards. I miss the raw milk. It has so many benifits! Store milk has nothing in it. It's white water with a slight flavor. Your body needs certain fats. You can loose weight on unprocessed foods and good fat! AND feel better. My daughter and her family have ate that way for years and do not get ill. They are extremely healthy! What more can you say when you see living proof.

wally o'brien
2/29/2012 4:15:02 PM

I work in the food ingredient industry and compliment you on a well written article. From my perspective, you're always going to have the folks who want raw milk. Two comments. I live in the Chicago area. About 30 years ago there was an outbreak of salmonella later pinpointed to a milk processing facility. People died from this. I've also traveled to Europe and suffered the consequences of raw milk products. Bottom line for me. If you're a healthy adult and are willing to risk gastrointestinal distress from time to time and you want raw milk, or raw milk products, go for it! I would not give raw milk to babies, young kids or the elderly.

craig thorne
2/29/2012 3:02:13 AM

The first time i had raw milk was when I was pretty young having dinner with a playmate who's family owned a dairy. I thought it taste great but very different from the skim milk i was used to. I'm not sure i would be so quick to trivialize the effects of enzymes in milk. Considering that enzymes typically break down more complex organic structures into simpler structures such as proteins, sugars and fats. The effect on taste and or nutritive value might be more then anticipated. Maybe people having a compromised ability to metabolize lactose may benefit from milk that contain additional enzymes.

jojo lashua
2/28/2012 3:46:43 PM

When you purchase pasteurized milk from the grocer it has been mixed with milk from many farms, many different types of cows. Some with higher butter fat than Holsteins. If you have a cow or have a neighbor that has cows they milk and you are comfortable with the cleanness of your barn or theirs and the health of the cows, then by all means enjoy raw milk. I used to buy my milk from a neighbor that milked 2 Jerseys and we would swap out my empty gallon jar for their full one. about 1/3rd of the jar was cream at the top. I would spoon most of that off and make butter with it or use as heavy cream. the rest would be shaken into the milk. You never have tasted good milk till you've tasted raw milk from high butterfat content cows.

john weston
2/27/2012 9:28:52 PM

Hey Tonia, not to mention this one I posted earlier and mysteriously disappered:

john weston
2/27/2012 8:47:57 PM

Nutrition or not, I'm leaning heavily towards raw milk after reading this:

maria hamilton
2/27/2012 6:17:38 PM

I watched a show on Animal Planet that followed an African man and his cows on a journey to get to the waterhole before the elephants drank it all. All he drank/ate was his cows' milk. Mongolians have drunk mare's milk for thousands of years and I remember watching another documentary about another African culture drinking camel's milk. I can't find any cavemen to ask though. Hmmm.

tonia townsend
2/27/2012 5:23:44 PM Ought to check this out...

bruce mcelmurray
12/18/2011 11:06:26 PM

When I was a child and used to visit my grandparents I would get to drink raw milk. Guess I have consumed a lot of it back then as it was good. Back then there were no additives in the pasture or feed. Here I am 70 years later and still have not had any ill effects from drinking all that raw milk. When I look back on what we did then, by today's standards, we shouldn't even be alive I suppose.

adam swenson
12/18/2011 5:20:43 PM

Cow's milk--organic, pasteurized, unpasteurized, or otherwise--is not natural for humans to consume. Just ask any caveman. It's not intrinsically harmless no matter if it's tainted with chemicals or heat or what have you.

bruce pierce
12/18/2011 1:42:30 PM

I used to drink raw milk when we visited my Grammy & Grampas farm all the time when I was little. Our family has been drinking raw milk for about 7yrs now. We 1st introduced raw milk into a formula my wife was making for our baby daughter and then our son grew on it too. We have been drinking it regularly since. I know the dairy farmer and the farm where I go and get it from. He is watchful of his herd and their health. While there is risk involved with this there is also risk involved in buying commercial store bought fruits and vegetables that are sprayed with poisonous insecticides. I'll take the risk for the dairy any day

prentice price
12/15/2011 10:40:39 PM

Raw milk is as natural as any organic food you can find. I don't see what all the bur-ha-ha is about. As long as the cow has been fed good natural food then it's GREEN. Isn't that what everyone want's this day and time. Of course the cow has to be kept clean and in good health. This was done in the 40's and 50's when i was raised. I drank raw milk from infuntcy to adulthood and would drink it now if i could find it. I thought todays society was all about natural.

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