Food regulation is one of the most important issues consumers face today. And for people who are concerned with where their food comes from (and how it got there), milk is now at the center of this debate. And because of its health benefits, many more people are turning to raw milk. Even lactose intolerant folks have found they can digest the un-pasteurized liquid; and it’s been said to reduce allergies and asthma in children—ailments that are on the rise in the U.S.
But there’s one hitch: raw milk is illegal.
I spoke with journalist David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, about our right to healthy food–what could very well be the new civil rights movement.
Makenna Goodman: Okay—I’m just going to ask, even though it seems like it should be obvious: What is raw milk?
David Gumpert: Raw milk is just what the name suggests—milk straight from the cow (or goat), which hasn’t been pasteurized (heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds) or homogenized.
MG: Mass media says raw milk is bad for me. Is this true?
DG: That is a complicated question. Yes, people do become ill from pathogens that can crop up in raw milk, like campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, and E.coli O157:H7. Most of the illnesses are mild, but occasionally, people have become very ill, and those most inclined toward the serious illnesses are children. But it’s important to note that people also become ill from a variety of other foods, including raw spinach, ground beef, peanut butter, lettuce, and peppers. To the extent the mass media suggest that raw milk is highly dangerous, they are misleading people. Data from the CDC shows in the 33-year period 1973-2005, there have been an average of about 50 reported illnesses annually from raw milk. And consumers should be aware that it’s possible to become ill from pasteurized milk; there have been outbreaks from contamination that has occurred post-pasteurization and led to occasionally thousands of people becoming ill. In Massachusetts during 2007, three elderly people died from contaminated pasteurized milk.
MG: What exactly is the difference between pasteurized (the milk we normally drink) and raw milk?
DG: Pasteurization is a heat-treatment process that took hold in the early and mid-twentieth century, in response to large numbers of illnesses and deaths from disease (like typhoid and tuberculosis) spread by contaminated raw milk. That, however, was a time when much less was known about the danger of pathogens, or the importance of sanitation and refrigeration.
Pasteurization kills off pathogens, and once it was introduced, childhood illness from pathogens in raw milk declined by 25% or more. The decline in illnesses, however, coincided as well with better sewerage systems and cleaner water.
There’s been lots of debate in alternative health and nutrition circles as to whether pasteurization, in particular, depletes milk of important “good” bacteria, enzymes, and proteins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintain that pasteurization has no appreciable effect on the nutritional composition of milk, but does get rid of potentially dangerous pathogens like campylobacter and salmonella. Pasteurization is really a processing function, though, and with all the concern over processed food, more people are questioning whether pasteurization does, in fact, alter milk’s composition.
MG: What are the health benefits from drinking raw milk?
DG: There was a time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when raw milk was pushed by some in the medical profession as nearly a cure-all for conditions ranging from arthritis to diabetes to gout. Today, there are extensive anecdotal tales of improved health from raw milk, such as relief from lactose intolerance. There is also research from Europe in the last few years indicating that children who drink raw milk have reduced rates of asthma and allergies.
Read the entire article, originally published on TreeHugger.com.