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Devotees of raw milk tout it as a miracle food yet consuming it can cause severe foodborne illness — leading to paralysis or even death.
Words by Grace Hussain
The raw milk movement may be on the rise again. Devotees tout it as an unprocessed miracle food to help with ailments or promote overall wellness. In fact, few foods have been as highly celebrated for their benefits as raw milk. Yet the claims made by advocates of unpasteurized milk aren’t backed up by evidence. Rather than strengthen immune systems, help with asthma and allergies or circumvent lactose intolerance, consuming raw milk can cause severe foodborne illness — which can lead to paralysis or even death.
The typical cow’s milk you find in the grocery store is pasteurized. This means that it’s heated to a high enough temperature for a long enough period to kill off unwanted microorganisms. This process removes any harmful bacteria that would ordinarily be in cow’s milk. Milk that is not pasteurized is known as raw milk, because it has not undergone this sterilization process.
Raw milk may contain harmful bacteria that can cause severe and enduring medical conditions, some which can result in death. States that allow the sale of raw milk for human consumption have higher incidences of related foodborne disease outbreaks than those that do not allow the sale of raw milk.
Raw milk can harbor harmful bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. During the pasteurization process these bacteria are typically killed by heating the milk.
Drinking raw milk can lead to a plethora of different health conditions, ranging from run-of-the-mill food poisoning to fatal diseases. Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own nerves, and can cause paralysis. Another severe condition that can result from consuming certain bacteria harbored in raw milk is hemolytic uremic syndrome. This syndrome may result in kidney failure, stroke or even death.
Though foodborne illnesses such as those contracted by drinking raw milk can impact anybody, there are some groups of people who should be especially cautious. Consumers with compromised immune systems, anyone older than 65 and children younger than five years old should be especially wary.
There are many ways that milk can become contaminated with harmful bacteria. Milk can come into contact with animal feces, or with microorganisms on a cow’s skin. The environment that dairy cows are raised in is usually teeming with bacteria, including those passed on from other animals such as rats and insects. The cow that produced the milk could easily have had mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland that often involves infection. The bacteria could even come from workers through contaminated clothing or unclean hands. With so many ways for milk to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, consuming raw milk that has not been pasteurized places consumers at an unnecessary risk of developing disease.
Raw milk is unpasteurized, contains about 4.4 grams of fat in every 100 grams of milk, and comes straight from the cow. Whole milk contains about 3.5 grams of fat per 100 grams of milk, and is heated to kill any foodborne illness-causing bacteria.
Raw milk is illegal in several states, including Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Tennessee and North Carolina. Some states allow the sale of raw milk only on farms. Texas, Oregon and New York all fall into this category. South Carolina, California and Nevada allow the sale of raw milk in certain stores. In addition to being governed by individual states, raw milk is illegal to sell across state lines, per the federal government. This means that dairies located in states where raw milk is illegal are unable to transport it to states where it is legal to sell raw milk.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has conducted research into how often diseases result from the consumption of raw milk. They found that in places where raw milk is legal, the incidence of foodborne illnesses linked to raw milk consumption is 3.2 times higher than in areas where it is illegal. In places where raw milk is sold in stores, the incidence of related foodborne illness outbreaks is 3.6 times higher than in areas where raw milk can only be sold on farms.
Raw milk is illegal in many places due to the numerous health risks associated with drinking it. On top of common foodborne illnesses such as salmonella that can be contracted from consuming raw milk, other bacteria within the drink can lead to severe and lasting consequences, and can potentially even be fatal.
Interest in raw milk has been increasing as people look to move away from processed foods. Those who do drink it often say that the taste is better than pasteurized milk. In response to the trend, the CDC has warned the public about the dangers associated with the consumption of raw milk.
There is a fairly common misconception that raw milk has more nutrients than pasteurized milk. This is false — the pasteurization process does not significantly impact the nutritional content of milk.
Those who choose to consume raw milk may claim that pasteurizing the milk destroys proteins. Though the form of proteins within milk may be impacted by pasteurization, the nutritional content and digestibility of the proteins are not.
Drinkers of raw milk often believe that the milk contains good bacteria that will help build up their immune systems and make them more resistant to developing diseases. Yet raw milk is more likely to cause disease than prevent it. What is present in raw milk are bacteria with genes for antimicrobial resistance, some of which may be capable of transferring their resistance to other bacteria, including pathogens living in the human gut. This finding is especially concerning, given the severity of antimicrobial resistance and its considerable threat to public health.
Some advocates of raw milk make the claim that unpasteurized milk is better for those with lactose intolerance. This is simply untrue, however, as both pasteurized and raw milk contain lactose, and raw milk does not contain special bacteria that produce the lactase necessary to prevent an intolerance reaction.
Some argue that children growing up on farms consuming raw milk may have fewer allergies and less asthma than kids who drink pasteurized milk. Yet any association is likely due to their growing up in a less-polluted environment, and is not solely attributable to the type of milk consumed.
It’s important to be wary of misinformation concerning raw milk. Advocates tend to make far-reaching claims, often based on cherry-picked data. Raw milk is not a miracle food and does not bring the many benefits often ascribed to it. The reality is that raw milk places drinkers at an increased risk of developing a wide array of foodborne illnesses. Below are some truths about raw milk, according to the FDA.
Raw milk is not a miracle food. In fact, it’s dangerous enough that it is illegal in several states, and cannot be sold across state lines. The consequences of consuming unpasteurized milk can be severe, especially for young children, the elderly and those with already-compromised immune systems.
If you’re looking for a raw and healthy alternative milk, consider making your own nut or oat milk at home. Doing so provides a delicious and much safer beverage, while also ensuring that you know exactly what’s going into your body.
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