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Is Raw Milk Really Healthier?

The following is an excerpt from The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights by David E. Gumpert

Once I entered the world of raw milk, one of the first and most frequent claims I heard was that consumers of the stuff usually didn’t suffer from lactose intolerance. I had never been lactose-intolerant myself, but I had heard enough advertisements for products like Lactaid to know it is a big problem for many people.

Sure enough, one of the major themes that stood out to Ann Arbor lawyer and co-op member Steve Bemis in the two-hundred-plus letters that Michigan consumers sent in to the Cass County prosecutor (described in the previous chapter) was how many of them referred to digestive issues associated with pasteurized milk—difficulties the consumers said were resolved with a switch to raw milk.

Bemis knew that lactose intolerance is a huge health issue—millions of people experience major intestinal discomfort when they drink pasteurized milk because they lack the enzyme necessary to metabolize lactose, a sugar found in milk. He also knew that the medical community’s usual response to patients with lactose intolerance is to advise them to avoid dairy products, or else to seek out special pasteurized milk without lactose. Not a great solution if you love ice cream, whipped cream, and cream cheese.

Bemis determined that the sting operation against dairy farmer Richard Hebron, and the rising awareness of raw milk that resulted from it, afforded an opportunity to assess via a real-life study whether raw milk in fact alleviates lactose intolerance. With funding from the Weston A. Price Foundation, he teamed up with Ted Beals, a retired University of Michigan pathologist, during the summer of 2007 to launch a survey of members of Michigan and Illinois cow shares. The survey inquired into how many household members consumed raw milk, whether they had ever been told by a physician that they suffered from lactose intolerance, and, if they had, whether or not rawmilk provided relief. Some 731 households completed surveys—they represented a total of 2,503 people—and, not surprisingly, 89 percent of those individuals were regularly consuming raw milk.

Bemis and Beals spent the fall and winter tabulating and compiling the results of this survey. Finally, by early 2008, they had some answers: Some 155 individuals, or 6 percent of the 2,217 regular consumers of raw milk, said they had been “told by a health care professional they had lactose intolerance.” And, as the researchers suspected, raw milk had provided relief to many: Of the 155 with confirmed lactose intolerance, 127 exhibited no symptoms of lactose intolerance when they drank the fresh unprocessed milk. Yes, the sample size was small, but the results were clear. An overwhelming majority—some 82 percent—of those who had experienced feelings of bloating, nausea, gas, and other problems when consuming pasteurized milk had no such problems with raw milk.

Why was this a big deal? Lactose intolerance is a major food problem in the United States—some estimates are that as many as fifty million people suffer from it. Because dairy is such a common item in our food—in cheeses, soups, cream sauces for meats and vegetables, cream for coffee, and an assortment of desserts, from ice cream to cakes and cookies—sufferers must be super-diligent about monitoring their diets, or risk encountering a bout of bloating and diarrhea just from eating cheese at a friend’s house or a cream sauce in a restaurant.

To try to home in on just how big a problem lactose intolerance really is, Bemis and Beals engaged a national survey organization, Opinion Research Corp., to call a representative sampling of ordinary consumers. The organization determined that 15 percent of American households have at least one member who is lactose-intolerant. Based on that finding, Opinion Research concluded that about 10 percent of the US population, or about twenty-nine million Americans, have some degree of lactose intolerance (a somewhat smaller number than the fifty million estimated by the FDA, but still a significant number). Among children, Opinion Research extrapolated that the rates are even higher—some 18 percent of households with children, while the rate is 13 percent in households without children.

Lactose intolerance is just one of a number of chronic conditions afflicting many millions of Americans, especially children, and for a number of these conditions, rates of affliction have risen sharply in recent years. The mass media have been full of reports about alarming increases in asthma and allergies. For example, the Centers for Disease Control states thatasthma rates in children have more than doubled since 1980, and that “the causes . . . remain unclear.”

Much of the rise in asthma cases is increasingly being attributed to the same factors that cause allergies: immune system problems. In many allergies, it’s thought the immune response somehow goes haywire and mistakes peanuts or eggs for an infiltrating disease of some sort.

A special report by Newsweek magazine about the alarming rise in allergies explained it this way:

The cascade of events begins when an allergy-prone person encounters a substance like pollen or peanut. The body sees it as trouble and launches phase one of its offensive: the production of antibodies called IgE (immunoglobulin E). These molecules attach themselves to “mast” cells, which line the lungs, intestines, skin, mouth, nose and sinuses. The next time the person encounters the pollen or peanut, the mast cells are primed for warfare, sending out powerful chemicals, like histamine, which lead to those nasty allergic symptoms—wheezing, stomach cramps, itching, stuffiness, swelling and hives. . . . Fixing the immune system, so that it learns to distinguish good from bad without error 100 percent of the time, is every immunologist’s dream.

As the examples of the previous chapter suggested, many parents have embraced raw milk as a way to “fix” their children’s and their own immune systems. No one knows for sure why raw milk seems to help individuals suffering from lactose intolerance. Unpasteurized milk contains harmless bacteria known as lactobacilli—which are killed off during pasteurization—and some research indicates that lactobacilli produce the lactase enzyme. This compensates for the insufficient lactase found in the digestive systems of lactose-intolerant persons, and helps these individuals break down and absorb lactose.

Ron Schmid, in The Untold Story of Milk, says it’s all pretty straightforward, based on his experience as a naturopathic physician: “Raw milk is rich in lactase, but the enzyme is destroyed by pasteurization. This is one reason raw milk is much easier to digest than pasteurized; in fact, most children and adults unable to digest pasteurized milk and diagnosed as lactose intolerant digest raw milk beautifully. This has been the case for hundreds of individuals I have worked with professionally.”

You’d think the tantalizing results Bemis and Beals had come up with might have become the basis for some further government- or university-sponsored research, to try to figure out exactly what was going on here. But that’s not how things tend to work in the world of public health when raw milk is the issue.

[…]


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