I could wax poetic for quite some time about my love of raw milk – how it's a living food, its creamy taste, its healing and nourishing abilities… but rather than ramble on and on, let me just get straight to the point about why we make drinking raw milk a priority in our family.
Raw Milk Is a Living Food
Raw milk and pasteurized milk are two very different creatures, which is ironic considering they're both milk.
When milk is fresh from the cow, regardless of whether it's destined for pasteurization or not, it is a food teeming with beneficial bacteria, enzymes, fat-soluble vitamins, and – if it comes from pastured cows – the potent cancer-fighting CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). Milk is, after all, a food designed to nourish a newborn, populate its sterile gut with beneficial and symbiotic microflora, and protect from infection. (source)
This is exciting because the milk in this state is in some ways the “perfect” food – everything needed to digest the milk and make the nutrients bio-available is in the milk itself. This is rare among foods, even whole foods.
This is also exciting because the multiple types of beneficial bacteria present are able to keep control over the normal amounts of pathogenic micro-organisms that come in contact with the milk, just like a healthy body's immune system. This keeps the milk safe, even as it sours.
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You can test this yourself: if you leave pasteurized milk at room temperature for a day or two, it putrefies. If you leave raw milk at room temperature for that same period of time, it sours. In the souring, the beneficial bacteria actually increase, culturing the milk into a probiotic-rich, yogurt-like drink and rendering the product more digestible. Many cultures around the world sour or clabber their milk in this way, although I must admit that I definitely prefer the sweet, creamy taste of the fresh milk to the more tangy taste of a bonny clabber. (It's great for baking though!)
Raw Milk is Not Pasteurized
The striking difference here is that while all those lovely things exist in all milk, once milk is pasteurized, the beneficial bacteria are destroyed along with the pathogens. The process also denatures various enzymes, including lipase, the enzyme needed to digest butterfat, and lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. (Source: Fallon, Sally and Mary G. Enig, Ph.D. Nourishing Traditions) This has led to growing numbers of lactose-intolerant people in North America. Interestingly enough, however, one study actually showed that 80% of individuals diagnosed as lactose-intolerant were able to digest raw milk with no side effects.
But to understand the real difference between raw milk and pasteurized milk, we need to look more closely at the process of pasteurization. Pasteurization isn't just the process of heating the milk – we even do that ourselves on our stove-tops when we're making yogurt or cheese. Conventional pasteurization is the process of heating a fluid extremely rapidly, which takes the milk from refrigerator-cold to 161° F in a matter of seconds, and it's the violence of this method, not the actual heating, that does the most damage to the nutrients and enzymes. Ultra-High Temperature (UHT) pasteurization takes the milk even further to 280° F for just exactly one second, leaving it completely devoid of the good and the bad – UHT pasteurization is essentially sterilization, and makes it an actual harmful food rather than a nourishing one. And most astoundingly, pasteurization is not meant to kill all pathogenic micro-organisms! It's merely meant to reduce the number of viable pathogens so they are unlikely to cause disease.
Now, I don't point all of this out to demonize pasteurization, as there are definite times when pasteurization is appropriate. What I want to point out here is the method by which most milk is pasteurized, which is what does the most damage.
Beyond that, however, it merely makes me eager and excited to enjoy my fresh, untouched raw milk and the benefits my body gains from it.
Raw Milk – the Ultimate Local Food
As regular readers of this blog know, I'm passionate about local food. And as it turns out, raw milk is the ultimate local food.
Yet another layer of the current conventional method of pasteurization is that most milk has to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest pasteurization plant and/or hundreds of miles back once it has been bottled. The cost of shipping large amounts of milk adds significant overhead to the process, thus the farmers themselves receive only a small portion of the profit from the sale of each gallon. This in turn necessitates that large-scale dairy farmers have hundreds of heads of cattle in order to provide enough volume of milk to make their business successful. And since it's impractical to have hundreds of head roaming rather than close to the milking parlor, as well as the massive amounts of land needed to support that many cows, it has become convention to keep the cows in feedlots.
The problem with this is that since the cows are in close quarters at all times, disease can spread rampantly. There are also large amounts of manure due to the sheer number of cows. Farmers do tend to be careful to keep each cow's teats clean, but in the large-scale operations, the requirements for what is allowed to be in the milk is very low since it is known that the milk is destined for pasteurization, so the raw milk itself is unsuitable for drinking.
Now, I should make mention here that not all farms whose milk gets pasteurized are milking cows in filthy conditions or are large-scale operations. There are many family-run or other small-scale farms who pasture their herds and milk in sanitary conditions, but whose milk is sold for pasteurization anyway – heck, my own grandmother was one of those. But pasteurization is the status quo in the dairy business (and in most states it's required) and often, farming has such a tight profit margin, you don't mess with the status quo at the risk of losing your farm, your home, and your livelihood.
In the states where raw milk sales are legal, there are actually a different set of regulations for raw milk which are much more stringent than the regulations for milk heading for pasteurization. And the farmers themselves tend to be even more careful and stringent than the regulations. For example, in the state where I purchase our milk the law is that each cow must be tested for disease once a month, but the dairy that supplies our milk not only conducts monthly herd testing, they test every single batch of milk before it leaves the farm.
And herein lies the beauty of local milk. With raw milk you have to be assured a safe product and thus you need to know where your milk came from. It's advantageous – perhaps even necessary – to have seen the farm and the cows that provide your milk. If you aren't satisfied with the conditions, you can't be ensured safe milk. Purchasing raw milk, therefore, necessitates buying local.
(If you're wanting to visit your local farm, Traditional-Foods.com has a fantastic Raw Milk Consumer's Guide and Dr. Joseph Mercola has some great pointers for what to look for and what to ask to ensure your milk is safe.)
Milk is a Seasonal Food
The taste, texture, and nutritional components of milk change according to what the cow eats and what time of year it is. If the cow eats only grain, as often happens in a feedlot, the milk will be different in its makeup than if that same cow is eating grass, hay, or sileage. According to where you live and what your seasons are like, if she is only out on pasture in the sunshine for part of the year, the Vitamin D in the milk will vary as well through the year.
Bovine and human lactation patterns are fairly similar, as well. A dry cow cannot produce milk until she has calved and she will continue to produce milk as long as she is milked. Her first milk is thick and creamy, making it perfect for making butter, and a bit later in the summer, when the grasses have been lush and she's been out in the sun, her milk is lovely for making cheese, which will then provide those nutrients through the dark days of winter.
As for taste, that's a bit seasonal too. One friend of mine referred to the raw milk she drank in late spring as “Breyers ice cream in a glass”! My parents, both of whom grew up on family farms, remember the bitter, grassy taste the milk took on when the cows were released from the barn for the first time each year and went from eating sileage to munching on the first grass shoots. (Picture the taste of the sweet bitterness of drinking freshly juiced wheatgrass.) I must admit, however, that I myself haven't noticed more than very subtle changes in the taste of the raw milk we've been drinking for the last couple of years – I don't know whether that's merely the much more moderate climate I live in as compared to where my parents grew up so our grasses don't change as much through the year, or whether our local farmer takes great care to keep her cows eating the same thing year round for the sake of keeping the product “familiar” to all her consumers.
Either way, it's pretty darn yummy!
Raw Milk Offers Family Farms a Sustainable, Viable Economic Option
Farming is a difficult business – it requires extremely long hours and demands extremely hard work, usually all for a very small profit margin.
Dairy farming is no exception. The price of milk is set by the regional dairy board or national cooperative (such as Dairy Farmers of America, which controls approximately one-third of the US milk supply), so farmers receive their cut according to how much milk is picked up on their farm, either for pasteurization or to be made into other dairy products, such as cheese or ice cream. In 2009, when prices were at a 40-year low, farmers were receiving a national average of 98 cents a gallon, which meant that some farms were losing as much as $200 per month per cow. Even today in 2011 as prices have improved, many dairies are operating at cost or at very little profit.
With raw milk, farmers sell directly to the consumer or to a retail outlet. They control their own prices (a typical price is somewhere between $5-10 gallon) and can maintain smaller herds with less overhead. This offers the option of making a viable living even with small herds. In addition, these types of farms typically are also able to be a bit more diversified, offering butter, cheese, chickens, eggs, or produce for sale as well.
Thus, buying raw milk has a direct effect on the local economy, allows a family in your area to make an honest, adequate living, and supports a more sustainable form of agriculture. In my book, those are reasons alone for buying raw milk!
How do I find Raw Milk? And what do I do if there's none available in my area?
There are some great resources for helping to find raw milk. RealMilk.com has a section of their website dedicated just to that, and the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund has a fantastic map showing the legal status of raw milk in each state. The RealMilk.com resource also covers several countries outside of the US, so it's definitely the best starting place.
For the states where retail sale of raw milk is legal, check your local health food store or food co-op. For farm-direct sales, barter, or cow shares (according to what's legal in your state or province), Craigslist is the best way to find farms and other people interested in getting or sharing raw milk.
And the rest of the time, you just have to make do with what's available in your community. Truth be told, we ourselves only drink raw milk about 50-75% of the time, due to the difficulty of obtaining it. We have been known to drive long distances to stock up on raw milk, but I don't exactly like to do that often. So, we get it as often as we can and the rest of the time, we make do.
Further Reading and More Resources
Raw Milk Food Safety Resources from the Farm to Consumer Foundation
Learn More About Raw Milk – a long list of links from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
Raw Milk and Raw Milk Products: Safety, Health, Economic and Legal Issues – PowerPoint presentation (this links to the page where you can open the presentation)
Raw Milk Cheeses – from The Nibble
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, Ph.D.
The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights by David E. Gumpert and Joel F. Salatin
The Raw Truth About Milk by Dr. William Campbell Douglass
The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated: The History, Politics and Science of Nature's Perfect Food by Ron Schmid (This book is an exceptional one. At over 400 pages long, with about 30 additional pages of citations and an index, it makes the scientific study around raw milk easily approachable.)