Milk is our first food, and it’s still one of the best sources of calcium. Milk from cows, goats, sheep, horses and camels has nourished us since prehistoric times. Today, most milk comes from a carton, but supermarket milk—pasteurized and homogenized, some flavored or lactose-free, others with fat reduced to two percent, one percent, skim and super skim—barely resembles the virgin product of a cow’s udder.
Even further removed are the alternative milks: flavored soy milks, nut milks (like almond or hazelnut), rice and oat milks, and milk made from the seeds of the hemp plant (just out last year) which contains all eight vital amino acids and many essential fatty acids like Omega 3s and Omega 6s.
These non-dairy, plant-based imitations have many pluses: all are cholesterol-free, lactose-free, low in fat (with no saturated fat), low in calories and animal product-free. But plant-based milks need extensive supplementation to match the calcium, vitamin and protein content of cow’s milk.
There are differences in taste as well. Rice-based drinks’ light, sweet flavor comes closest to dairy. Nut milks are simply an emulsion of sugar water with ground-up nuts. Soy-based beverages are thicker and creamier than their grain or nut-based cousins.
Some people are taking the more traditional road: organic raw milk. Martha Stewart said in a recent show, “If you’ve ever had milk fresh from a farm, you know how delicious it is.” Andy Rooney quipped, “My suggestion, if they want to sell more milk, is that they go back to selling what comes out of a cow.”
What is “real milk”? According to the website Realmilk.com, it “comes from real cows that eat real food.”
It Starts with a Cow
Cows like to graze—on fresh, green grass in the summer and stored dry grass (hay) in winter. But in modern, industrial dairies, cows are fed a scientifically designed diet of corn and soy meant to increase milk production and confined in dirty, crowded sheds where they can’t move, have no fresh air and never see the sun. They are also often injected with Bovine Recombinant Growth Hormone (rBGH), which causes cows to produce milk as though pregnant. The hormone is banned in the European Union and Canada for ties to cancer and birth defects, and many U.S. companies are responding with rBGH-free labels on their milk.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website warns, “Raw milk can harbor dangerous micro-organisms that can pose serious health risks.” But raw milk drinkers counter that “straight from the cow” milk is healthier than its pasteurized, homogenized counterpart.
Before the U.S. began pasteurizing in the early 1900s, all milk was raw. But unclean farm conditions led to outbreaks of tuberculosis, diarrhea and other food-borne illnesses.
Urbanization meant milk had to travel longer distances to get to the consumer. Heating milk to kill microorganisms promised a panacea, because pasteurized milk harbored fewer pathogens and could be stored longer.
According to Cornell’s Milk Facts website, several types of pasteurization exist today. High temperature, short time (HTST) heats milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for just 15 seconds, and is most widely used in the U.S. Homog-enization forces milk through small orifices under high pressure, reducing the size of fat globules to less than one micrometer (½m). This prevents cream from rising to the top.
Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why, charges that pasteurization is “a form of sterilization that kills the living organisms in milk, both beneficial and pathogenic.” Many of the bacteria in milk, like lactobacillus, are beneficial “probiotics”: live microorganisms like those in yogurt. Jennifer Perry who runs a farm stand in upstate New York says, “I am quite lactose intolerant when I drink pasteurized milk but have no trouble at all with the raw.” A recent Opinion Research survey found that 82 percent of Michigan consumers with a medical diagnosis of lactose intolerance had no intestinal symptoms when drinking raw milk.
Raw milk proponents also claim pasteurization diminishes vitamin potency and destroys important enzymes. According to Dr. B. M. Pickard of Britain’s Leeds University, “Evidence shows that untreated milk has a higher nutritional value, providing more available vitamins and minerals than pasteurized milk.” But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) insists, “There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk.” Proponents say it has cured their allergies, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.
Two recent studies show there may be truth to the claims. A study published in the Journal of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in 2006 found that drinking raw milk lessened a child’s chances of developing asthma, eczema and hay fever.
And according to a Swiss study published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy last May, “Our results indicate that consumption of farm milk may offer protection against asthma and allergy.” But the study authors also warn, “Despite our findings, we cannot recommend consumption of raw farm milk
Raw milk may contain path-ogens such as salmonella or…E. coli and its consumption may have serious health risks.”
The debate rages on. The CDC, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and most of the medical community have all endorsed pasteurization. According to the CDC, between 1988 and 2005, raw milk and raw milk products were responsible for 45 outbreaks of food-borne illness, resulting in 104 hospitalizations and two deaths.
Raw milk advocates counter that there have also been numerous bacterial outbreaks traced to pasteurized milk. In addition, organic raw milk dairies undergo stringent inspections. According to Ron Schmid, a naturopathic physician and author of The Untold Story of Milk, “The evidence is overwhelming that raw milk from clean, grass-fed cows is not only as safe and reasonable as any other food, but is incredibly beneficial to health. The only debate that should be joined now is over whether the government should be allowed to continue making criminals out of people who insist on the right to produce and consume raw milk.”