As a dietitian, I’ve always shunned the idea of drinking unpasteurized milk. My formal education taught me that consuming raw dairy significantly increased the risk for food borne illness. In my clinical practice, I met with individuals who lauded the benefits of veganism, juicing, raising their own chickens for eggs, or drinking raw milk. Fruits and vegetables, juices, roaming birds – all fine; but raw milk – it’s just so…raw!
I’ve since begun to think a little differently, and it seems I’m not alone.
Raw Milk Trends
• The food world is abuzz with talk of raw milk, and even the mainstream media has highlighted the growing trend.
• There is increasing pressure on legislators to make raw milk more available in both the US and Canada. Currently, 20 US states ban the buying and selling of raw milk.*
• A 2012 survey of raw milk drinkers found the majority to be well-educated twenty-somethings who purchased raw in an effort to support local farms and because they believed it to be healthier than pasteurized dairy.
* This image shows the type of regulatory restrictions placed on raw milk, state-by-state:
Raw milk may be popular, but is it safe? Both sides of the raw milk debate (pasteurized vs. raw) argue vigorously that their product is the safest and healthiest. How can consumers know who’s right?
Benefits of Raw Milk
Raw milk enthusiasts claim that cows grazing in organic pastures – the way God intended them to – produce milk that is of superior quality, and that drinking the milk raw preserves these key nutrients:
This protein molecule is abundant in raw milk, and plays a role in intestinal health and immune function. It is damaged by pasteurization and therefore is in higher concentrations in non-pasteurized milk.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
CLA is higher in milk from grass-fed cows, some say 3-5 times higher; nearly all cows providing raw milk for consumption are raised on pasture grasses. Preliminary data suggest that CLA is protective against cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Similar to CLA, these healthy fats are naturally higher in pastured cattle and, therefore, also in raw milk versus pasteurized milk sold in supermarkets. Omega-3 fats are best known for their triglyceride-lowering, anti-inflammatory, and brain-building benefits.
Natural enzymes are denatured by heat pasteurization, but raw milk is a rich source of these. Many who are lactose-intolerant report complete resolution of the condition when they switch to raw milk.
These “good bacteria” are damaged by pasteurization, but are in high concentrations in raw milk. Probiotics have been used widely to help restore gut flora following intestinal illness, but recent data indicate potential benefit for overall immune function as well.
Downsides of Raw Milk
In most parts of the US, raw milk costs significantly more than pasteurized milk, both conventional and organic.
• Purchasing raw milk is prohibited in Canada.
• 30 states in the US allow raw milk purchasing, though most require direct purchase from the farmer.
• Raw milk is widely available in Europe, where raw milk vending machines can even be spotted on street corners.
• The risk of food-borne illness from raw milk is much lower than becoming ill from:
Fresh leafy greens,
Home-cooked chicken, &
• The risk of illness from a major pathogen in milk, Listeria, is low enough for raw milk to meet US FDA definition of a “Low Risk” food.
• The key to minimizing risk of food borne illness is to buy raw milk only from reputable local farms who maintain the highest sanitation standards.
Where to Buy Raw Milk
Are you interested in buying raw milk? Search for providers in your area and online using this tool.
For those who want to enjoy some raw milk benefits, but who still desire greater protection from pathogens, “vat pasteurization” is one option. This method of heating smaller batches of milk to 145 degrees for 30 minutes is rare today, but is making a comeback. It can be done at home by heating raw milk on the stove; or you can look for the words “Vat Pasteurized” on milk labels at health food stores and some regular grocery stores.
The Bottom Line (Updated August 2015)
Though not entirely risk-free, unpasteurized milk appears to be safer than the public has been led to believe, provided the farmer adheres to proper sanitation and refrigeration practices. More study is needed to determine whether the added nutritional components of raw milk (of enzymes, healthy fats, etc.) have enough biological activity to significantly improve human health outcomes.
Update 2015: My family and I have been drinking raw milk exclusively for over a year now. We buy it from a local farm whose cows are raised on pasture and milked with great attention to sanitation. We’ve had no bouts of food borne illness, love the quality and taste, and don’t plan to go back to store bought milk any time soon!
What about you? Do you drink raw milk? Why or Why Not?