Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk

Not too long ago, it was never really disputed that drinking milk was a healthy choice for everyone from children to adults. Perhaps with the advent of the Internet and the ability to comment and promote personal opinions on all aspects of health, even milk, the poster child of healthy beverages, is drawing negative attention from those claiming benefits of a non-dairy lifestyle.

Even amongst the milk drinking populace, there’s a bit of a divide between those who drink pasteurized milk and raw milk. If you have concerns about the raw vs. pasteurized issue, perhaps this discussion will help you stay healthily informed.

Foodborne Illnesses

Raw milk is milk that is produced by cows, sheep, goats or other animals and quickly offered for human consumption without the benefit of pasteurization to eliminate bacteria. When collected and handled, milk can become contaminated with small, undetectable traces of dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria that are responsible for causing deadly foodborne illnesses. After collection, if they are present these bacteria begin to multiply and concentrate in raw milk as a natural process. Within hours, without the benefit of pasteurization, the concentration of harmful bacteria reaches a level where illness is inevitable for the consumer, especially the groups at highest risk.

Normally, a healthy immune system fights against low levels of dangerous bacteria from raw milk, but there can be an increased risk of illnesses from even low-level contamination amongst children, the elderly, pregnant women and those whose immune system has been compromised. Increasingly in the last decade, there has been a rise in the number of cases of illnesses linked to the consumption of contaminated raw milk and products made from raw milk. Pregnant women are at serious risk from Listeria which can lead to miscarriage, fetal illness or death and even death of a newborn baby.

Shelf Life

The storage life of raw milk is very short, as milk is naturally intended to be passed instantly from cow to calf. Pasteurization is essential in extending the shelf life of milk so that milk can be transported from farm to home without accumulating harmful bacteria.

Very few people are fortunate enough to have access to raw milk as soon as it’s been produced, before the pathogens and bacteria are given time to multiply into dangerous concentrations. For the rest of us who are not living on farms, pasteurization keeps milk safe to store and consume after being collected.

Health of the Milk

Pasteurization, which heats milk to a high temperature for a brief amount of time, has been mis-characterized as destroying all of the healthy components of milk along with the harmful bacteria.

Studies show that pasteurization has no effect on the human nutritional benefits of milk in any respects. So both versions of milk are beneficial to drink from a nutritional perspective. Studies also challenge claims of lactose intolerance and allergic reactions attributed to pasteurized milk.

Health Statistics & Disease

A study released by the CDC in February 2012 examined the number of dairy outbreaks in the United States between 1993 and 2006. It was found that 60% of dairy-related outbreaks reported to the CDC were linked to raw milk products. Experts also found that those sickened in raw milk outbreaks were 13 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who got ill from pasteurized milk during an outbreak.

More recently, among dairy product-associated outbreaks reported to the CDC between 1998 and 2011, 79% were due to raw milk or cheese. Expressing these statistics as a percentage, a consumer is 400% more likely to become ill from consuming unpasteurized milk or cheese compared with pasteurized product. From 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to the consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to the CDC. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. Most of these illnesses were caused by E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria.

Currently it is estimated that 3% percent of the population of the U.S. drinks raw milk, with that number on the rise as raw milk grows in availability. But is there a misunderstanding about the potential dangers of raw milk and does more need to be done to help parents and families with a scientifically informed choice about the bacterial risk of raw milk? No parent would ever choose a family car that is 400% more likely to result in injury to loved ones, and yet raw milk is not evaluated adequately by parents and consumers to reach a logical conclusion in preference of pasteurized milk. The reasons and thinking that have led to increasing consumption of raw milk should be discussed and understood to make progress in educating and informing the public about the real danger associated with this choice.

As with any decision regarding your personal health and well-being, the final verdict about consuming raw milk or choosing the proven safety of pasteurization rests in your hands.