Raw vs Pasteurized Milk

Raw milk enthusiasts claim that when produced and handled properly, raw milk is a nutritious food that even some lactose intolerant people can enjoy. What is raw milk, and how does it differ from the pasteurized milk to which we’ve become accustomed?

Although many consider milk a fresh product, it is actually cooked at high temperatures through a process called pasteurization, killing any bacteria or pathogens that raw milk may carry when produced under less than sanitary conditions.  What many people do not know is that pasteurization also neutralizes essential enzymes and vitamins which make milk a healthy food. Some people mistakenly believe that certified organic milk is raw, which is not the case.  Unless otherwise labelled, organic milk is pasteurized and sometimes homogenized.

History of pasteurization

Pasteurization was originally created by Louis Pasteur to prevent wine from spoiling.  He did this by discovering the exact temperature and duration that would kill harmful bacteria without altering the taste of the product.  When pasteurization was eventually applied to milk, the process was used to both kill bacteria carried in milk as well as to increase its shelf life. In the US, pasteurization became a widespread practice beginning in the 1920’s.  Through the industrialization of agriculture, large agribusinesses consolidated smaller dairies who used to supply fresh, local sources of milk.  Nowadays, with the globalization of the food market, pasteurization is a useful tool for large food suppliers who require an extensive shelf life to preserve products over increasingly longer transportation times.

How does milk get contaminated?

In an industrialized world, pasteurization has made dairy much safer for public consumption.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) lists the following ways in which milk can get contaminated:
  • Cow feces coming into direct contact with the milk
  • Infection of the cow’s udder (mastitis)
  • Cow diseases (e.g., bovine tuberculosis)
  • Bacteria that live on the skin of cows
  • Environment (e.g., feces, dirt, processing equipment)
  • Insects, rodents, and other animal vectors
  • Humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots
These avenues of contamination are highly common in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from which most of our meat and dairy products are produced.  The concentration of animals in CAFOs is such that manure and other detritus build-up is commonplace, creating an environment in which bacteria and infection thrive. Dr. Catherine Shanahan explains how Americans came to fear raw milk in her book about revitalizing our genetic health through traditional foods. “Our fear of fresh milk can be traced to the energetic campaigning of a man named Charles North who patented the first batch-processing pasteurization machine in 1907.  A skilled orator and savvy businessman, he traveled small towns throughout the country creating publicity and interest in his machines by claiming to have come directly from another small town, just like theirs, where people were dying from drinking unpasteurized milk. “Of course, his claims were total fiction and doctors were staunchly opposed to pasteurization.  The facts were on their side.  Unfortunately, North had something better—fear.  And he milked that fear right into a small fortune.”

Two Types of Pasteurization: HTST and UHT

Traditional pasteurization uses high temperature over a short time, thus giving it the acronym HTST.  This form of pasteurization heats milk at 165°F (73.8°C) for 15 seconds, giving milk a shelf life of anywhere between 16-21 days from the day it was packaged or bottled.  Many farmers prefer this method believing that it disinfects milk but still keeps its flavor intact. Ultra pasteurization, or ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurization, is more common in Europe but is gaining ground in both Canada and the US.  This process heats milk at 280°F (137.7°C) for only two seconds and is claimed to kill more bacteria than HTST.  If packaged in a sterile container, ultra pasteurized milk can have a shelf life of 60-70 days.

How pasteurizers see raw—no significant nutritional loss

Pro-pasteurization advocates claim that although pasteurization does decrease the amount of vitamins A, B, C and Folic Acid, the loss is so small that it is otherwise insignificant. One will note however that many milk brands who promote increased vitamin content such as Vitamins D and A, calcium, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), etc., have added these to the milk after pasteurization. Many dairy farmers do not sell raw milk because of its volatility—it has a short shelf life making it difficult to distribute it regionally—and the sanitary precautions required for raw milk dairy operations.  Federal regulations in the US prohibiting transportation of raw milk across state lines for sale and insurance costs can be more than what many farmers are willing to take on. “When I started creating my business plan for putting the creamery in, the issues around raw were surrounded by so much regulation and so much liability that it is very costly to get into,” commented Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery. “It is really hard to get a quality product to the shelf, unless you are in control of the whole system.  I grew up around milk, I still drink raw milk, but it is straight from the dairy—I know where it comes from and how old it is.  You know if you go through distribution, through a retailer, a lot of times it’s 5-7 days old before it gets to the shelf.  We used to drink it within 3-4 days and that was it.  You start getting bacteria built up and you don’t know how people are handling it along the whole production chain.  So I decided not to take that risk.”

The raw view on pasteurization

For raw dairy farmers, pasteurization robs consumers of the nutritional content that makes milk a healthy product.  Advocates for raw milk claim that pasteurization destroys important enzymes, such as lipase, protease, and phosphatase. Phosphatase, for example, is critical for the body to absorb minerals and calcium.  The test used to determine whether or not pasteurization has been successful is called the “phosphatase test” which determines success on the absence of phosphatase content in the milk. Digestive enzymes that allow for the proper digestion of milk fats are also destroyed during pasteurization, which is why many may experience mucous build-up, indigestion, or may develop an intolerance to lactose.  Raw milk also contains beneficial probiotic microorganisms and intestinal flora essential to digestion.

Pasteurization and allergies

Milk is listed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the number one food allergy in America.  Organic Pastures, an organic raw dairy based in California, explains why pasteurized milk causes an allergic reaction. “After pasteurization, bacteria found naturally in milk are killed. During the high temperature heating process, cell bodies of these bacteria are ruptured and their contents are spilled, releasing intracellular proteins. This causes many milk drinkers to suffer histamine or allergic reactions.” These cell parts and their contents are not filtered out of milk, causing the immune system to react negatively towards milk when it encounters these foreign, broken cell bodies.

Call up your local farmer

As always, we suggest going straight to the source to get answers.  Farmers who are passionate about what they are doing are generally happy to answer questions about their methods. Mark McAfee is both farmer and owner of Organic Pastures.  His dairy operation provides free range pastureland for his grass-fed cows and utilizes a mobile milking barn that follows his dairy herd instead of stressing his cows by shuttling them into a barn twice a day. In an interview with EthicalFoods.com, Mark answered the question on everyone’s mind: why raw? “Raw milk comes straight from the cow.  It is not processed in any way.  It is completely whole.  When we say whole, we mean that it includes all of its wonderful yogurt-like bacteria, it contains all of its enzymes, and it contains good fats that have not been changed from grass feeding versus grain feeding—and all of its minerals are available.” Mark went on to explain that there is not just a difference in pasteurized versus raw milk, but in grass-fed cows versus grain-fed. “Grass-fed cows have the same proteins as grass-fed beef: Omega-3 and 6, and CLA, which are good cancer fighting fats—heart healthy fats that are present in fish oils.” Humans have been drinking raw milk for hundreds of years prior to the invention of pasteurization.  Mark believes in the simplicity of the product he makes.

“Nothing is taken out and nothing is added in.  You get what mother nature created. Period. And that has its own living proof within it.”

More information about dairy

Read our interview with Mark McAfee Sustainable Kitchen Guide: find out how to evaluate and choose humane, healthy and sustainable milk, cheese and dairy products. Breaking the link between dairy and veal How to make your own fresh coconut almond milk Did you know that milk is a seasonal product? Find out more. Where does milk come from? A1 vs A2 milk: What’s the difference?


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