Raw milk is, quite simply, milk that comes straight from the cow without being pasteurized. But, they pasteurize milk for a reason, right? So, how could drinking unpasteurized milk be safe?
Pasteurization involves heating foods, then rapidly cooling them again to kill off any microorganisms living in the food. The process, invented by biologist Louis Pasteur in 1864, can prevent people from contracting many kinds of foodborne illnesses like salmonella or E. coli.
But what did people do before pasteurization? Did they just get sick? In many cases, yes, they did. That’s why pasteurization was invented in the first place. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. But that’s not quite the whole story …
Actually, people had been drinking raw milk, straight from their own cows, sheep, and goats, for millennia without getting sick. Milk has long been one of the most nutritionally complete foods in the human diet, and has been an important part of nearly every culture’s cuisine. If it had always made people sick, we would have stopped drinking it long ago. So, what happened? Why did raw milk, something we’d been drinking for thousands of years, suddenly start making people sick?
The Industrial Revolution is what happened. People began moving from the country to large cities, and the world’s population began to explode. People were no longer getting milk from the cow in their own, or their neighbors’, backyards. They were buying it from stores or having it delivered by dairies. Farms, once the center of a community’s food supply, became businesses. And, like most businesses, they grew larger and larger, and more and more interested in making a profit, even, at times, to the detriment of the quality of their product. Soon, dairy cows, which had always lived in open fields and grazed on fresh grass, were herded into cramped, unsanitary pens and fed grains — sometimes even waste grains from alcohol distilleries — that weren’t a part of their natural diet. The result was increasingly unhealthy cows that produced sometimes infected milk. To make this milk safe for human consumption, it had to be pasteurized.
In recent years, though, there has been a growing number of people who believe that, by returning cows to open fields, feeding them grass, and milking them under sanitary conditions, you can get milk that is safe enough to be consumed without being pasteurized. But why bother? If pasteurization kills off bacteria, why not just treat all milk to be on the safe side?
Proponents of raw milk say the fact that pasteurization kills off bacteria is actually a problem. In addition to killing potentially harmful bacteria, pasteurization also kills the many beneficial microorganisms found in milk. Raw milk drinkers say these “good bacteria” can aid in digestion and overall health. These bacteria can help our bodies to more efficiently break down the foods we eat, and get the most nutrients from them. Plus, milk is high in lactic acid, a natural acid that is able to keep “bad bacteria” in check, as long as the milk comes from a healthy cow.
Because its beneficial bacteria are in tact, raw milk is often touted as a potential alternative for people who are lactose-intolerant. The bodies of lactose intolerant people don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. But raw milk includes a helpful bacteria called Lactobacilli that breaks down the lactose for you.
In addition to killing off bacteria, pasteurization also changes the structure of the milk, breaking down the proteins that can be used by our bodies as antibodies to fight off illness and infection. Raw milk fans say these antibodies fight off viruses, increase our resistance to environmental toxins, and may even help to reduce the severity of some chronic conditions, like asthma.
Like any other food sold commercially, raw milk is periodically tested for harmful bacteria and other impurities, and must be certified safe. Not just any dairy can sell its milk raw. The production must meet certain conditions and follow a strict set of safety standards.
If you’re interested in trying raw milk, you may be able to find it your local a natural foods store. Or do a little research online to find out if there is a certified raw dairy near you.