The Truth About Pasteurized Milk

By Lisa Turner

Eating in the raw is all the rage, and the fad doesn’t end at flax crackers and seed cheese. A growing number of health savvy folks are also asking for raw milk, charging that pasteurization destroys milk’s beneficial enzymes and nutrients. Meanwhile, organizations like the FDA and CDC warn that raw milk carries pathogenic bacteria that pasteurization kills. Separating truth from hyperbole, on both sides of the debate, can be tough.

According to the FDA, the pasteurization process, which involves heating the milk to at least 161.5 degrees for at least 15 seconds, destroys pathogens, like campylobacter, salmonella, and brucella, responsible for disease as well as for spoilage, without significantly altering the milk’s nutritional value or flavor. The CDC reports that in 2001, more than 300 people got sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk, with symptoms including fever, diarrhea, and nausea. 

“In general, we would recommend against drinking any kind of raw milk,” says Seema Jain, MD, medical epidemiologist with the CDC. “Even if you’re drinking milk directly from the cow and following really good hygiene practices, it still won’t eliminate the possibility of contamination.” One reason for that is that cows, goats, and sheep carry bacteria in their intestines that don’t make them ill but can cause sickness in people who consume their untreated milk or milk products. 

Others disagree though, saying that if the milk comes from healthy cows on clean farms and has been carefully handled and stored, contamination isn’t an issue—especially since raw milk contains compounds like lactoperoxidase that help destroy pathogens.

Even CDC statistics on raw-milk food poisonings may be deceptive. “It may be that the milk in some cases was improperly handled, or perhaps it wasn’t raw milk at all that caused the outbreaks,” says Kaayla Daniel, PhD, CCN, a clinical nutritionist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It’s just not possible to definitively trace the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness.” 

When milk is involved, often the culprit lies with improper handling—a problem that can occur even when it has been pasteurized. Numerous outbreaks of food-born illnesses have been connected, in fact, to pasteurized milk and dairy products.

Even if pasteurization doesn’t automatically confer protection, better safe than sorry, right? Not necessarily, say members of the raw-milk movement, if you take into account the health benefits of going raw. For one, unpasteurized milk may be easier for the body to digest and assimilate. “Many people who have problems like allergies or lactose intolerance with pasteurized milk will thrive on raw milk products,” Daniel says. “Pasteurization kills the enzymes necessary to digest milk protein, fats, and sugars.” As a result, she says, pasteurized milk is more likely to cause digestive disorders, such as celiac disease, Chron’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as allergies. Pasteurization also makes it harder to absorb the calcium in milk because it destroys phosphotase, an enzyme that aids in calcium uptake. On a broader scale, raw milk promotes a return to humane, hormone-free, pasture-based, small-scale farming and processing as well. 

Still, the potential for bacterial contamination isn’t one to take lightly. After weighing the benefits and risks of raw milk, figure out what’s right for you. Laws vary from state to state, but in most cases you can purchase raw milk directly from organic farmers and, in some states, from health food stores and co-ops. Investigate your state’s laws or find sources at www.realmilk.com.