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For most of our nation’s history, and for thousands of years before that, people have consumed raw milk from their cows, goats, and other livestock. Today however, raw milk is almost unknown, as the vast majority of Americans drink only pasteurized milk, which has been heated to kill off harmful pathogens. When properly produced, handled, and stored, however, raw milk is a live, nutritious food that’s pure, complete and much easier to digest than pasteurized milk.
The consumption of raw milk from various animals dates back thousands of years, even predating the dawn of agriculture. The pasteurization process, however, has only come along recently. The process was invented and is named after Louis Pasteur, who sought to find a way to prevent wine from going bad without ruining its taste. He eventually found the right balance of heating for the right amount of time to kill bacteria without dramatically changing the wine’s taste and structure. Later, this process was applied to many beverages, including juices and milk.
Until the 1920s, milk was drunk raw in the U.S. When small, family-owned-and-operated dairy farms began to become industrialized on a large scale, however, pasteurization began to be a widespread technique for the industry, not only to kill any bacteria, but also to increase the milk’s shelf life. Today, about 97 percent of our nation’s milk supply is pasteurized.
What is Processed/Pasteurized Milk?
Processed milk can undergo a couple of different processes to kill bacteria, increase its shelf life, and to change its texture.
The pasteurization process does two things: it destroys all bacteria – including those that can be harmful – and lengthens the milk’s shelf life. There are actually two different pasteurization techniques.
- Traditional Pasteurization (HTST): This technique uses high temperature over a short time, before the milk’s flavor is dramatically changed. This technique heats the milk to165°F for about fifteen seconds. Properly processed and stored, traditionally pasteurized milk can last sixteen to twenty-one days.
- Ultra Pasteurization (UHT): Also known as ultra-high temperature pasteurization, this technique is not-yet common in the US, but is widely used in Europe. This process heats milk at much higher temperatures (280°F), but only does so for two seconds. Proponents claim it kills more bacteria than traditional pasteurization. When properly processed and stored, ultra pasteurized milk has a sixty-to-seventy-day shelf life.
Homogenization is a process that makes the natural fats in milk mix consistently together with the liquid by mixing the raw milk in large batches to create a consistent fat content, then forcing the mixed milk through tiny holes at very high pressures. It’s done in order to keep the levels of flavor and fat concentration in milk consistent for consumer consumption. While any animal milk can go through this process, it is typically done to cow’s milk, which contains large fat globules that tend to separate and rise to the surface as cream. Goat’s milk, on the other hand, has fat globules that are much smaller and that will mix more evenly throughout the milk. Goat milk is therefore naturally homogenized. While homogenization is a dairy industry standard, some studies are showing the process may be a contributing factor in the rise of heart disease.
Benefits of Raw
Raw milk contains many nutritional benefits that make it superior to pasteurized milk:
- Easier digestion: Raw milk contains lactose in its complete, unaltered form, which aids in digestion, and in some cases can even be digested by those who struggle with lactose intolerance.
- Nothing added: While pasteurized milk must be fortified with vitamins and minerals lost in the heating process, raw milk is completely pure and in its original state. Nothing changed, taken, or added.
- Active probiotics: Not all bacteria are bad, but the pasteurization process kills both harmful and beneficial bacteria. While raw milk can potentially contain pathogens, it also contains live probiotics, which help digest food, repair the gut, and help keep harmful bacteria in check.
- Active enzymes: Like bacteria, enzymes are also killed by the pasteurization process. In raw milk, these active enzymes help digest the milk, helping turn it into fuel, protein, and vitamins that the body can use.
- Hypoallergenic: Homogenized, pasteurized milk is one of the nation’s most common food allergies, especially in children. Raw milk, however, doesn’t seem to have as strong an effect. In fact, children who drink raw milk have been shown to be less likely to develop allergies or even asthma.
Raw milk certainly has its critics, and there’s an ongoing national debate about drinking it. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are outspoken against it.
The CDC lists  these common potential contaminants:
- Cow feces
- Infection of the cow’s udder (mastitis)
- Cow diseases (e.g., bovine tuberculosis)
- Skin bacteria
- Contaminated processing equipment
- Insects, mice, and other animals
- Human contact
It’s worth noting that all of these contamination sources are much more common in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which currently dominate the country’s dairy supply. Packed into tight quarters in an environment that can promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria, disease outbreaks, and other infectious problems, these factory farms require the use of pasteurization. Small-scale and family farms with high sanitary standards, however, are much less likely to involve antibiotic use, filthy stalls, and other contamination problems that could lead to an outbreak.
While some dairy farms choose to feed their families raw milk for its many benefits, most still choose to sell only pasteurized milk. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, raw milk spoils much more quickly, making it difficult to distribute over a large area. The sanitary precautions needed are also difficult to perform on a large business scale. State and federal regulations, in addition to insurance costs, can also make the decision to sell raw milk expensive and very difficult.
It’s old wisdom now that nature knows better than Big Dairy, Big Pharma, or Big Government about health and healing. An increasingly large part of the nation’s population is beginning to remember this and is starting to turn to the natural state of our food in order to receive the greatest nutritional benefit. With more and more information on the health properties of raw milk and the drawbacks of pasteurized milk, it’s no wonder that people are joining the raw milk movement and asserting their right to eat what they know is best and most nutritious for them and their families.