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Is Raw Milk Safe?

What are the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #111

What Are the Risks of Raw Milk?

Raw milk can contain microorganisms including E. coli, salmonella, and Listeria. If one of these bugs takes hold in your gut, you might spend the weekend in the bathroom—or you could end up in the hospital. In rare cases, foodborne illnesses can be fatal. As with any infectious disease, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with impaired immune systems are at the greatest risk.

Contrary to what you may have read, there is absolutely nothing in raw milk that naturally kills dangerous pathogens or protects you from them.

Now, raw milk proponents will point out that just a few generations ago, everyone in the country drank raw milk. And that’s true.  But it’s also true that raw dairy was the most common source of foodborne illness back then, and a major source of infant mortality.

Of course, keeping cows healthy and farms and milking operations clean can reduce the risk—and drinking raw milk today is much safer than it was in the early part of the 20th century. But there is no way to eliminate the risk of pathogenic bacteria in raw milk. And, contrary to what you may have read, there is absolutely nothing in raw milk that naturally kills dangerous pathogens or protects you from them.

You may also hear people say that they and their entire family have been drinking raw milk all their lives and never had a problem. That may also be true—but it doesn’t tell you much about your risk. Most people who drink raw milk will not get sick. And those who do get sick might have drunk raw milk thousands of times before with no problem. But the fact is that people can and do get sick from germs in raw milk.

See Also: Is Raw Milk Good for You?

Can You Get Sick From Pasteurized Milk?

Raw milk proponents like to point out that people can also get sick from pasteurized milk that’s gotten contaminated after the pasteurization process. And that’s true. But you are far more likely to get sick drinking raw milk than you are from drinking pasteurized milk.

So far this year, there have been 98 cases of illness traced to raw milk and 23 illnesses attributed to pasteurized milk. When you consider the fact that raw milk accounts for about 2 percent of the milk consumed in the U.S., it suggests that you’re about 200 times more likely to get sick from drinking raw milk than from drinking pasteurized milk. Then again, 1600 people got sick this summer from eating salmonella-contaminated eggs.

OK, so eating is risky. Raw milk may not be as safe as pasteurized milk but it’s probably not the riskiest thing you eat, either. But, seeing as pasteurized milk is an option, why would you take unnecessary risks by drinking raw milk?

Are There Health Benefits to Drinking Raw Milk?

Raw milk advocates point out that raw milk contains nutrients, enzymes, beneficial bacteria, and other compounds that are denatured or destroyed by pasteurization. They claim drinking raw milk provides all kinds of health benefits, everything from enhanced digestion to improved immune response.

For example, some 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. Many people also say that raw milk simply tastes better than unpasteurized milk.

Next week, I’ll continue with a closer look at the evidence supporting these health claims. In the meantime, I’ve included links below to other discussions on the pros and cons of raw milk.  Feel free to post your comments below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

In the meantime, feel free to check out my Quick Tip on whether or not ultra-pasteurized milk is healthy.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

Raw Milk: Dangerous Beverage or Human Right? (Chicago Tribune)

Raw Milk’s Appeal Grows Despite Health Risks (Scientific American)

Food safety hazards associated with consumption of raw milk. (Pubmed)

Unpasteurized milk: A continued public health threat (Pubmed)

FDA Food Facts: Raw Milk   (FDA)

Woman Drinking Milk image courtesy of Shutterstock

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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