Dairy is a staple in diets around the world. For many Americans, dairy, specifically milk, is a part of their daily routine. Usually served cold with a bowl of cereal, milk is consumed without regard to the processes by which it is made, and without awareness of the controversy surrounding those processes.
Since the work of 19th century French scientist Louis Pasteur, milk has gone through a process known aptly as pasteurization. This process heats milk to a high temperature, thus killing all bacteria. Milk also undergoes another process, known as homogenization, which separates the fat globules present, so that they stay evenly distributed throughout the milk. These processes were implemented because of the dangers of certain bacteria associated with milk. It also was to make the wide-scale distribution of milk easier. Before the advent of Louis Pasteur, milk was consumed without being subject to these preservation processes. Milk that has not been exposed to these processes is known as raw milk. Simply, raw milk is milk that has not undergone the pasteurization and homogenization processes.
Raw milk is the natural state of milk, with all of its alleged health benefits intact, but this statement would not go unchallenged by food science experts. It is important to note that before the advent of these modern, industrialized processes, milk was consumed without the benefit of these processes. Raw milk may seem to be more healthy or pure; however, this is the subject of intense debate. In fact, raw milk is illegal in many parts of the United States. The reasons for its partial prohibition have directly to do with food safety issues, and the lack of ability to regulate its shelf life.
Raw milk, precisely because it has not gone through modern preservation processes, may contain dangerous microorganisms that may pose health threats to those who consume it. For example, E. coli can be transmitted in untreated milk. Foodborne illness is the main risk of consuming raw milk. For raw milk proponents, there are benefits to consuming organic milk that has not been subject to the homogenization and pasteurization processes. First, those who drink raw milk claim that it tastes better. This, though, is highly subjective, and conclusions must be made on more scientifically established grounds. Modern preservation processes do, in fact, remove harmful microorganisms from milk. They also, however, remove many of the milk’s helpful nutritional benefits during these processes. Critical health benefits of milk, such as manganese, copper, and iron, are certainly diminished when exposed to heat. The sterilization process also compromises vitamins C and B6. Those that claim that raw milk is healthier than treated milk may have scientific merit. Furthermore, many raw milk proponents report improved digestion when consuming raw milk. Again, this is subjective, and experts have been unable to verify this type of claim.
The availability and commercial distribution of raw milk varies across the globe. Some countries have completely prohibited the consumption of raw milk. In North America, it is illegal to distribute raw milk to Canadian consumers directly, In the United States, 29 states currently allow the sale of raw milk. Thus, one’s ability to secure raw milk depends on individual state laws. If a consumer lives in a state in which the consumption of raw milk is legal, the consumer can contact a farm that sells raw milk or by some other farm-to-consumer distribution process.
The debate over processed milk and raw milk will likely continue for years to come. Those who consider themselves "on the fence" in this debate would do well to consider the health benefits of raw milk, but should also be aware of the health and safety issues surrounding it.
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Laura Holt, for Agrilicious!