The Raw Milk Debate: Rawness and Rationality

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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.

I have yet to see convincing proof that raw milk automatically improves our general nutritional welfare. But I am only marginally more sympathetic to the claims of the other side. The health authorities who have brought about blanket prohibitions on the sale of raw milk represent muddled governmental thinking at its officious worst. What spreads disease is not raw milk but raw milk contaminated by harmful bacteria — or in some cases, pasteurized milk contaminated by bacteria.

Pasteurization is just one solution to a problem that ought to admit more than one solution. With ultrapasteurization, you will not (usually) cause mass outbreaks of disease by pooling the output of many thousands of cows at colossal processing facilities hundreds of miles from the point of production, then shipping it over greater distances to many hundreds of stores where it may reach consumers a week after milking. Clearly, there are precautions that must have the force of law if that’s the only way anyone is to get milk — but why should it be?

I’d seriously caution anyone against galloping off to the nearest dairy farm and trying to buy raw milk with no questions asked. But every year more and more cases also come to light of pathogens spread through mass-distribution channels.

Milk Resources

  • For more on raw milk issues, visit Anne Mendelson’s article “In Bacteria Land” from the prestigious journal Gastronomica.  
  • To learn more about real milk, check out The Astonishing Story of Real Milk. You’ll also find links to five of Anne Mendelson’s fabulous recipes that celebrate the vestility of delcious, nutritious milk.
  • Want to know how to choose the best milk and cream for different recipes from among the many options? See Label Babel: Buying Milk and Cream.
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