But all of it is pasteurized. Almost all of it is homogenized. Why?
Pasteurization, in a nutshell, is the process of heating a substance to a high enough temperature that all the organisms in it die.
While there are many different methods of pasteurization, the end result is basically the same. See foodsafetysite.com for more information.
Why is raw milk pasteurized? "John F. Sheehan, JD, Director of Plant and Dairy Food Safety at the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, stated the following in his Mar. 15, 2007 testimony before the Health and Government Operations Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates, available at www.fda.gov: '...Raw milk is inherently dangerous and should not be consumed. Raw milk continues to be a source of foodborne illness and even a cause of death within the United States'" (milk.procon.org).
So raw milk is inherently dangerous? That would mean that the danger is a permanent and inseparable element from the milk. That would mean that raw milk is bad for you just because it's milk.
"The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated the following in a July 16, 2011 press release, "Foodborne Outbreak Associated with Raw Milk from Tucker Adkins Dairy of York SC," available at www.fda.gov: '...Proponents of drinking raw milk often claim that raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk and that raw milk is inherently antimicrobial, thus making pasteurization unnecessary. There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk, and raw milk does not contain compounds that will kill harmful bacteria'" (milk.procon.org ).
If there is no meaningful nutritional difference between raw and pasteurized milk, then how can the danger be inherent to the milk? The FDA seems to be claiming here that the ONLY difference between raw and pasteurized milk is that, "Pasteurization, a process that heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time, kills bacteria responsible for diseases, such as listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis..." (milk.procon.org).
So, then the problem is inherent to the bacteria, or other disease-causing pathogens, NOT the milk. That would mean that raw milk is not inherently dangerous; however, listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis are. And while we're on the topic of bacteria, let's get a few things straight.
Not all bacteria are bad for you. Bacteria are a required ingredient in making both cheese and yogurt. Helpful bacteria, called flora or probiotics, live in our intestines and help us digest food. In fact, "A stable, healthy intestinal microflora is thought to contribute to overall health by excluding foreign, potentially harmful bacteria" (probiotic.org).
So what about the bacteria in raw milk? Are they helpful or harmful?
Lactic Acid Bacteria are normally present in milk and can be added to milk to make cheese or yogurt. "LAB is one of the groups of bacteria that occur physiologically in the digestive tract of mammals. These bacteria influence the distribution and the numbers of lymphoid cells in lymphatic tissues associated with the gut, ensure the balance in the composition of the gut microflora, and through their activity are able to maintain the integrity of the gut mucous membrane" (Lactic Acid Bacteria). Basically, these bacteria already exist and take part in maintaining healthy intestines. These strains of bacteria are also sold as probiotic supplements that people can take to help improve their digestion.
Spoilage bacteria are also found in milk. "Spoilage is a term used to describe the deterioration of a foods' texture, colour, odour or flavour to the point where it is unappetizing or unsuitable for human consumption" (Food Science). The spoilage bacteria in milk are not pathogenic, disease-causing bacteria: if something is "spoiled" it is a quality issue, not an infection issue.
Pathogenic, or disease-causing, bacteria can also be found in milk. These bacteria are not inherently present in the milk as it is sterile while in the udder (Milk Hygiene), but can enter the milk through contamination. The CDC lists the following sources of contamination of milk (and I quote):
- 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
So, inherently speaking, milk is sterile. Once bacteria do enter the milk, the Lactic Acid Bacteria are good for you, spoilage bacteria just make your milk undesirable or undrinkable after a while, and only through contamination by specific exposure does raw milk become a bearer of food-borne illness causing bacteria.
So then why do we pasteurize? If as long as our farms are sanitary the milk is safe, shouldn't we be able to drink clean, raw milk?
"In the early 19th century, the alcohol distillery business in the United States began to grow. Large amounts of swill (spent-grains) were produced as a byproduct of whisky and other alcohol production. Many distilleries opened dairies and began feeding their dairy cows with the waste swill. The low nutritional content of the swill lead to sickness in the cows and in the humans who drank their milk. 'Confined to filthy, manure-filled pens, the unfortunate cows gave a pale, bluish milk so poor in quality, it couldn't even be used for making butter or cheese'" (milk.procon.org). Pasteurization was a sanitation miracle. Louis Pasteur aided in proving the "germ theory", which showed that pathogens cause disease. By heating these organisms until they died, food-borne illness was drastically reduced without having to understand exactly where these pathogens came from our how they got into our food. Thus, by 1917, mandatory pasteurizing had begun in parts of the country and grew from there (milk.procon.org).
But today, we understand pathogens better. We know where they come from, and how they get in our food. The CDC even has a helpful list. So why are we still pasteurizing? Why don't we just change our farming methods to create sanitary conditions for our cows so that they can produce milk without it becoming contaminated?
Although there are probably multiple reasons, one main issue is profit. "Dianne Feinstein, Senator for the State of California, stated on her website in an Apr. 4, 2006 article titled "Senator Feinstein Co-Chairs Newly Formed Congressional Dairy Farmer Caucus" that: '...Milk accounted for about $27 billion of cash receipts for producers in 2005. Americans drink more than 6 billion gallons of milk per year, and another 10 billion gallons of milk are used to produce cheese'" (milk.procon.org). $27 billion is a lot of money. What do they do with it all? Of course the money funds expenses, etc., but in 2011, the dairy industry as a whole also spent over $6 million of their profits to lobby the government (opensecrets.org).
Pasteurization allows dairy corporations to relax sanitation standards at their huge dairy farms because even if the milk is contaminated, the pathogens are killed by the pasteurization. I, for one, would prefer that the cows were just given sanitary and healthy living conditions, and I didn't have to worry about what was once in my milk.
Finally, pasteurization affects the quality of the milk. "Linda Melos, ND, primary care naturopathic physician, stated the following in her article "The Health Benefits of Raw Milk," available at www.lindamelosnd.com (accessed Aug. 15, 2011): '...Pasteurizing milk kills off all bacteria, including the health-giving lactobacilli [Lactic Acid Bacteria]. This allows milk to putrefy with bad bacteria over time, rather than sour or ferment from good lactobacilli. Pasteurization also destroys vitamins, especially C, B6 and B12, and denatures fragile milk proteins. It destroys 20% of the iodine, and makes insoluble the major part of the calcium content'" (milk.procon.org). Basically, pasteurization also kills the Lactic Acid Bacteria that help us with healthy digestion. It also destroys vitamins, minerals, and even *gasp* makes it difficult for our bodies to use the calcium in it.
Melos's opinion is a mild one. The Weston A. Price Foundation states in their article, "What is Real Milk?" that pasteurization can be linked to "...allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer..." (milk.procon.org).
In fact, multiple PubMed articles show a correlation between consumption of farm milk and a decrease in allergies and asthma in children: PubMed, PubMed, PubMed.
This information is interesting at the very least.
Homogenization is the mechanical process of pushing milk through a small hole at high pressures which causes the fat molecules to be decreased in size.
Just as oil separates from water, so does the fat, or cream, separate from the rest of the milk. Homogenization allows the milk to stay homogeneous, or evenly mixed, without requiring shaking (milk.procon.org).
Some advocate that homogenization causes normal digestive processes to go awry as it confronts these miniature fat particles and claim that this process can cause cancer and/or heart disease. Others claim homogenization has no effect on these diseases (milk.procon.org).
However, science aside, are we really just doing this because we're too lazy to shake a bottle? Even if you're not ready to give up pasteurization, go to the store and buy a bottle of non-homogenized milk and just give it a good shake before you pour. That way, you don't even have to read about whether or not it will give you cancer, it's a non-issue.
Now, whether you side with the raw milk advocates or the government organizations, the above information is cause for some concern on a public and personal level of health.
Also, I want to be clear: of course raw milk can make you sick if it's contaminated. So can any other food you eat. The news is peppered with stories about recalls, salmonella outbreaks, and the like. The solution is not to give up these foods all together. Instead we can (A) get cleaner and focus on the health and sanitation of our animals, plants, and farmers and (B) buy from farmers we trust. When you know your farmer, you know what kind of person is responsible for making sure your spinach isn't contaminated with pathogens from manure, you know who is making sure the cow's udder is clean before he/she starts the milking process, and you know exactly what ingredients are in what you are buying because you can ask the person who produced it. This makes shopping a whole lot simpler, and it puts the responsibility of preventing contamination into fewer hands which leaves less room for mistakes. For more information on reasons to buy local, see my previous article: Eating Local: Knowing Where Your Food Comes From.
To conclude, at the writing of this article, 46 of 50 states have adopted the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, at least in part, which states: "only Grade "A" pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized or aseptically processed milk and milk products shall be sold to the final consumer, to restaurants, soda fountains, grocery stores or similar establishments" (See link below). However, through legal loopholes such as buying raw milk for "pet consumption" or taking part in a herd share where the consumer buys a cow or part of one in a farmer's herd and then receives milk from his/her cow or partial cow (legally speaking) as if they were drinking raw milk from a cow they raise on their own land, raw milk is available for distribution or purchase in 32 states (milk.procon.org).
This means that it is illegal or at least very difficult to drink raw milk in the United States, which, considering the dangers of other legal products, take tobacco for example, seems a bit silly. So despite the hundreds of brands of milk we have to choose from, when it comes to pasteurization, we have very little choice in the matter, which is of course just a small part of the grander scheme that I like to call the choice illusion.
If you are interested in finding raw milk in your area, try: http://www.realmilk.com/where.html.