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Is Raw Milk Good for You?

What are the benefits of drinking unpasteurized milk?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
October 25, 2010
Episode #112

Is Raw Milk Good for You?

This is the second of a two-part article looking at the pros and cons of drinking raw, unpasteurized milk. In the first part, I discussed the risks of drinking raw milk. In this article, I’ll take a look at the possible benefits.

Is Raw Milk Healthier?

Raw milk proponents point out that raw milk contains nutrients, enzymes, beneficial bacteria, and other compounds that are denatured or destroyed by pasteurization. That’s true. All food processing involves some nutrient loss. As I pointed out in my episode on raw food diets, even storage can decrease the nutritional value of foods.

See: What are the benefits of a raw food diet?

So the question is not whether raw milk is different than pasteurized milk; it clearly is. The question is whether these differences have a significant impact on your health. And that’s not as clear.

Does Raw Milk Contain Beneficial Bacteria?

Let’s start with the beneficial bacteria. Foods containing friendly, lactobacillus bacteria are definitely good for you. (See: Fermented and Cultured Foods) But you’ll get far more beneficial bacteria from eating yogurt or drinking kefir than you would from drinking raw milk.   

Is Raw Milk More Nutritious?

Most of the evidence for the benefits of drinking raw dairy is anecdotal.

But what about vitamins and minerals? Below, I’ve included a chart that compares the amount of various vitamins and minerals in raw and pasteurized milk. As you can see, there is very little difference in the amount of B vitamins, folic acid, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, or zinc. In fact, pasteurized milk is generally much higher in vitamins A and D than raw milk, but that’s only because it is usually fortified with these nutrients. 

It’s true that virtually all of the vitamin C in raw milk is destroyed by pasteurization. However, as raw milk contains very little vitamin C to start out with, I can’t see that this would have any significant impact on anyone’s nutrient status.

 

Nutrients (per cup)

Raw milk

Pasteurized

whole milk

A

100 mcg

249 IU (fortified)

D

10 IU

98 IU (fortified)

E

250 mcg

100 mcg

K

12 mcg

.5 mcg

B1

112 mcg

100 mcg

B2

440 mcg

400 mcg

Niacin

225mcg

300 mcg

B6

125 mcg

100 mcg

Pantothenic acid

880 mcg

900 mcg

Folic acid

14 mcg

12 mcg

B12

1 mcg

1 mcg

C

5 mg

0 mg

Sodium

110 mg

98 mg

Potassium

400 mg

349 mg

Calcium

300 mg

276 mg

Magnesium

25 mg

24 mg

Phosphorus

250 mg

222 mg

Iron

100 mcg

100 mcg

Zinc

1200 mcg

1000 mcg

Selenium

8 mcg

9 mcg

Source

University of Guelph

USDA

 

Is Raw Milk Lower in Lactose?

Contrary to popular belief, raw milk contains the same amount of lactose as pasteurized milk and does not contain any lactose-digesting enzymes. It does contain some other enzymes but their role in making the milk more digestible isn’t clear. In general, the enzymes that are involved in digestion are not those that are present in the food but those that are produced by your own body.

What are The Benefits of Drinking Raw Milk?

Most of the evidence for the benefits of drinking raw dairy is anecdotal. People report that when they started drinking raw milk, they got fewer colds, or their allergies went away, or their irritable bowel wasn’t as irritable or they were no longer lactose intolerant. These sorts of testimonials can be very compelling. But as scientific evidence, they have three major weaknesses.

The 3 Main Problems with Anecdotal Reports

Reporting bias Anecdotal evidence may be a very accurate representation of someone else’s experience. But it doesn’t give you much information about how likely you are to have the same experience. That’s because you’re much more likely to notice and tell people about a positive response than if nothing special happens. This reporting bias tends to make positive outcomes seem much more likely than they actually are.

The scientific literature suffers from the same bias, by the way. An experiment that finds a relationship between A and B is much more likely to be published than an experiment that finds no relationship between A and B. But when you think about it, both are equally important pieces of information. 

Uncontrolled variables Another weakness with anecdotal information is that it doesn’t control for variables. Maybe switching to raw milk was part of a larger effort to improve your diet. In addition to adding raw milk, you also eliminated refined sugar and started eating more vegetables. If you then get fewer colds, who’s to say that it was the raw milk that made the difference rather than, say, the extra broccoli?

Or perhaps the year that you started drinking raw milk happened to be a year when the frost date was a lot later than usual, which lowered the pollen count that Spring. Or a year when low rain fall reduced the mold count. Is the improvement in your allergies from the raw milk or environmental factors?

There are also a lot of anecdotal reports of people who can’t drink pasteurized milk because they are lactose intolerant. Yet they tolerate raw milk just fine. Remember, however, the raw milk—which is usually unskimmed—may be a lot higher in fat than the milk they had been drinking. And the higher that fat content, the lower the lactose content.  

The broccoli, the frost date, the rain fall, and the fat content of the milk are all examples of uncontrolled variables.

The placebo effect Finally, anecdotal evidence doesn’t control for the placebo effect—which describes the fact that people often feel better simply because they think they will. If anything, the more anecdotal evidence you hear, the more likely you are to experience a placebo effect. That doesn’t make you gullible or stupid. It makes you human.

The scientific method was designed to counter these all-too-human tendencies. Anecdotal reports often suggest that something’s worth researching further. But the way we calculate the probability of certain results, control for variables, and evaluate the placebo response is to conduct controlled trials.

What is the Scientific Evidence for Raw Milk?

Unfortunately, we don’t have much in the way of controlled trials for raw milk versus pasteurized milk.  At this point, the only claim for raw milk that’s been scientifically validated is that children who drink unpasteurized milk are somewhat less likely to suffer from allergies and asthma. However, the authors of this study concluded that the benefits do not appear to be substantial enough to justify the increased risk of foodborne illness that comes with drinking raw milk

And that’s just the thing: When it comes to the placebo effect, as long as it’s harmless, I’m all for it! If lying with your head pointed north helps you sleep better, I say: Go for it! But in the case of raw milk, you really need to weigh the possibility of benefits against the risks. To refresh your memory about what those risks are, refer to the first part of this series: Is Raw Milk Safe?

As I said in that article, I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t drink raw milk. But I do want you to have an accurate understanding of both the risks and the potential benefits. And because young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised health or immunity are at much higher risk of serious, even fatal infections, I believe that people in those categories should err on side of caution and stick to pasteurized dairy products.

Does Raw Milk Taste Better?

Finally, many people feel that raw milk simply tastes better. I believe it! Raw milk is probably fresher. It may be higher in fat. It’s usually unhomogenized. All of these things could improve the flavor of the milk. However, it is possible to buy fresh, unskimmed, unhomogenized milk—direct from the farmer in those attractive glass bottles—and still have the security of pasteurization.  You can go to localharvest.org to search for dairy farmers that sell direct to consumers in your location.

 
Resources
 
Dairy Chemistry and Physics (University of Guelph)
 
 
Nutrition Information for Milk (NutritionData.com)
 
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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