By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition
Raw Milk: This topic definitely falls under my category of Confessions of a Nutrition Hit Man. There was a time in my career when I spoke about milk, albeit not necessarily raw milk, in a very dark tone. By the time I was 20, I had realized that milk caused me to suffer from a continuous nasal drip, congestion, and more frequent colds and upper respiratory tract infections. In the years that followed, as I started counseling and working as a dietitian and later as a nutritionist, I met countless others who shared these reactions or symptoms. By the time I started lecturing and teaching, I was fond of statements that I had heard by others, such as "we are the only animal that drinks the milk of another animal," or that I had coined myself ("milk is the perfect beverage to produce a four hundred pound animal in several months.") This is an account of the importance of details.
As I continued to work with more and more people from very diverse backgrounds, I started to meet with and counsel more and more individuals who regularly drank raw milk or who served their children raw milk. These encounters, coupled with my observations while traveling in Europe, the Himalayas, and in areas of South America, started to paint a very different picture with respect to the influence of milk on human health. The families who had cows in Europe or India, yaks or dzos in Nepal, and goats in South America, all appeared to be incredibly healthy. The kids were strong and were most often unaffected by the common signs of parasite infection or anemia that was normal in some of these regions. The grandparents and the elderly still had very straight backs without the more common curvature of the upper spine seen so often. But it was always raw milk that these multigenerational families were drinking.
Still, even with these first hand experiences, I was reluctant to drink raw milk myself. We made yogurt with raw milk for several years and I would have a small glass of it once in awhile, treating it as though it were vodka or some similar spirit that needed to be consumed in very small quantities or would otherwise produce unfavorable effects. Undoubtedly, my public health training coupled with all of the damning epidemiology around milk consumption and prostate cancer and other diseases (enter The China Study) had created a subconscious wall that I was unwilling to deconstruct. Dogma dies hard and in my early days as a nutritionist I had developed serious dogma around both milk and meat.
The last couple of years have been tremendously eye opening for me with respect to raw milk. I always knew that there were significant advantages to raw milk over pasteurized and had always made an effort to buy the real stuff from grass-fed cows. I just didn’t realize how vast those differences were until I embarked on the n=1 pilot study, and later with my children, the n=4 Phase I trial. I was so encouraged by the pilot study that I was able to convince my wife, our family’s Internal Review Board (IRB) to approve the trial. After a short period of what I refer to as "digestive adjustment" with increased gas and some temporary bloating, I noticed that my recovery from exercise was more rapid, my digestion improved beyond baseline values (I will not elaborate on these in a public forum), and began to eat less while feeling more satiated overall. The kids also responded remarkably well. Our youngest, who frequently got cold sores, has not had one since this all started. I was sold.
In an effort to provide clarity on the subject, let’s first get to the core of why raw milk is so controversial and illegal in many states. One in 6,000,000. Those are your odds of getting sick from drinking raw milk. See the first paper, a meta analysis, presented below. The risk of getting sick from salads, chicken, shellfish, seafood, and ground beef, same time period (over the last 10 years): range from 11X to 32X in greater likelihood. Is pasteurization an archaic solution to an archaic problem? If sourcing your raw milk from small, grass-fed dairies, it certainly looks that way.
Chances are you had a parent or grandparents that were raised on raw milk. There is even more certainty that you had great grandparents raised on it. One thing is for sure and is somehow affirmed on an almost daily basis: our ancestors knew how to eat and were, barring food shortages or droughts, typically more well nourished than most are today. If boiling milk were deemed necessary or held benefits, it probably would have been. The more and more we learn about the heath benefits of raw milk (see research papers from the past few years below), the more we should consider it not only safe, but a true superfood. After all, true superfoods are those that we can survive on for extensive periods of time. They should be those foods that offer an incredible array of benefits and are nutrient dense. I love blueberries, but they offer very little in comparison to raw milk. The same can be said of most other foods when it really comes down to it.
There are prebiotic oligosaccharides in raw milk that are incredibly unique in their support of developing healthy bifidobacteria populations. In some individuals, raw milk achieves what no probiotic, fermented food, or GI "repair program" can. These are destroyed by the heat, in the same way that pasteurization destroys the milk’s lactoferrin, its enzymes, B-vitamins, and reduces its mineral bioavailability.
Referenced below are three papers. The first paper illustrates what a low risk food raw milk really is. The second paper demonstrates raw milk’s protective benefits and lower infection rates in kids. Additionally, it significantly lowers C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation). Finally, the third paper looks at the reduction in asthma, eczema, and allergies experienced by children consuming raw milk.
Ultimately, many of us have had mild epiphanies with respect to the elimination of dairy and improved health or the absence of symptoms. For this reason and many others, I completely understand and expect most to be beyond the point of no return. If however, you feel adventurous or are looking for an incredible food staple for you or your family, it is worth a try. Just be sure to source your raw milk appropriately. It might not be for everyone, but then again few things are!
Caveats: choose grass-fed, Guernsey, Jersey cows, or goats, know your farmer, and know how to read through the BS that the dairy industry funds (big dairy doesn't want you or I to have access to raw milk from small dairies).
*J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2015 Jan;135(1):56-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2014.08.044. Epub 2014 Oct 19. Consumption of unprocessed cow's milk protects infants from common respiratory infections. Loss G1, Depner M2, Ulfman LH3, van Neerven RJ4, Hose AJ2, Genuneit J5, Karvonen AM6, Hyvärinen A6, Kaulek V7, Roduit C8, Weber J2, Lauener R9, Pfefferle PI10, Pekkanen J11, Vaarala O12, Dalphin JC7, Riedler J13, Braun-Fahrländer C14, von Mutius E15, Ege MJ15; PASTURE study group. * When contrasted with ultra-heat treated milk, raw milk consumption was inversely associated with occurrence of rhinitis (adjusted odds ratio from longitudinal models [95% CI]: 0.71 [0.54-0.94]), respiratory tract infections (0.77 [0.59-0.99]), otitis (0.14 [0.05-0.42]), and fever (0.69 [0.47-1.01]).Raw farm milk consumption was inversely associated with C-reactive protein levels at 12 months (geometric means ratio [95% CI]: 0.66 [0.45-0.98]). Early life consumption of raw cow's milk reduced the risk of manifest respiratory infections and fever by about 30%.
Clin Exp Allergy. 2007 May;37(5):661-70. Inverse association of farm milk consumption with asthma and allergy in rural and suburban populations across Europe. Waser M1, Michels KB, Bieli C, Flöistrup H, Pershagen G, von Mutius E, Ege M, Riedler J, Schram-Bijkerk D, Brunekreef B, van Hage M, Lauener R, Braun-Fahrländer C; PARSIFAL Study team.
Farm milk consumption ever in life showed a statistically significant inverse association with asthma: covariate adjusted odds ratio (aOR) 0.74 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.61-0.88], rhinoconjunctivitis: aOR 0.56 (0.43-0.73) and sensitization to pollen and the food mix. Our results indicate that consumption of farm milk may offer protection against asthma and allergy. A deepened understanding of the relevant protective components of farm milk and a better insight into the biological mechanisms underlying this association are warranted as a basis for the development of a safe product for prevention.
J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011 Oct;128(4):766-773.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2011.07.048. Epub 2011 Aug 27. The protective effect of farm milk consumption on childhood asthma and atopy: the GABRIELA study. Loss G1, Apprich S, Waser M, Kneifel W, Genuneit J, Büchele G, Weber J, Sozanska B, Danielewicz H, Horak E, van Neerven RJ, Heederik D, Lorenzen PC, von Mutius E, Braun-Fahrländer C; GABRIELA study group. Reported raw milk consumption was inversely associated to asthma (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 0.59; 95% CI, 0.46-0.74), atopy (aOR, 0.74; 95% CI, 0.61-0.90), and hay fever (aOR, 0.51; 95% CI, 0.37-0.69) independent of other farm exposures. Boiled farm milk did not show a protective effect.
Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.