Raw milk: a superfood or super risky?

For health-conscious, organic-loving shoppers, unpasteurized milk is a growing food fad but food safety officials advise it can be like playing Russian roulette

How do you like your milk: cooked or raw? It may sound an odd question, but its being asked more often at kitchen tables, grocery store and farmers markets across the US.

The vast majority of milk we drink is pasteurized heat-treated to kill off harmful pathogens. Raw milk, on the other hand, goes straight-out from udder to bottle. Fans call it milk as nature aimed: nutrient-rich and full of probiotics, the good various kinds of bacteria. Some fans go further, calling it a superfood that aids digestion, boosts the immune system and treats asthma, eczema and allergies.

For blogger and cookbook writer Jennifer McGruther, trying raw milk years ago was a natural extension of her interest in traditional diets and locally attained food. But in Colorado, where she lived at the time, you couldnt just go to the store and buy it. In fact, due to very concerned about security, retail sales of raw milk are proscribed in about 20 nations. So she joined something called a herd-share strategy, which lets people buy those who are interested a group of dairy kine. As a part-owner, youre entitled to what that cow creates, she explains. Its difficult for the nation to say you cant drink the milk from cows you own.

McGruther loved the savour and so did their own families. Before long, she says, her four-year-old son would burst into tears if she gave him regular milk. There is this richness to it, and it savours different based on the seasons, she says. There is a uniformity that comes with pasteurization, but food is not uniform.

Inside
Inside the milking barn at Organic Pastures raw dairy farm in Fresno, California. Photo: Charlotte Simmonds for the Guardian

An increasing number of people agree. For health-conscious, organic-loving shoppers, raw milk is a growing food fad. Who wouldnt feel saddened by the thought of heat-blasted, barren milk sitting under supermarket strip-lighting when the alternative is painted as a living food, fresh and full of character? Goop recently caused a stir by featuring a naturopathic physician who recommends an eight-day raw goats milk cleanse to rid your body of parasites; some swear by it, others swear it will just build you fart. But when Gwyneth Paltrow jumps on the bandwagon, you know a food is having a moment.

McGruther was in agreement that raw milk is a much bigger bargain than it was 10 decades ago. She says many of her 500,000 -plus readers come to her blog, The Nourished Kitchen, specifically to find out more about it. The US government estimates that 3.2% of people now drink it, though proponents I spoke with suggest the figure is more like 5 %.

But despite the enthusiasm, its a trend with an unsavory side. Pasteurization is the norm for a reason its highly effective at killing things such as E coli, salmonella , campylobacter and listeria that can hang around in the gut and feces of even healthy kine. Raw milk, on the other hand, relies heavily on the ability of the farmer and the cleanliness of the operation to avoid contamination.

A US food safety official once compared drinking raw milk to playing Russian roulette, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention( CDC) says raw milk illness have spiked as more people drink it. Between 2009 and 2014, raw milk and raw milk cheese caused the vast majority( 96%) of all illness linked to polluted dairy products. Considering far fewer people ingest it, that makes unpasteurized dairy 840 times more risky than pasteurized, the CDC says. The recent deaths of two people who ate raw milk cheese attained in New York underscored the sometimes deadly consequences.

Eight decades ago, Michele Jay-Russell, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, helped start a website called Real Raw Milk Facts to counter what she describes as a way sophisticated misinformation campaign lauding the benefits and downplaying the dangers.

Organic
Organic Pastures raw dairy farm in Fresno, California. Photograph: Charlotte Simmonds for the Guardian

She says several European studies and observations of Amish farm infants do suggest those who drink raw milk have less asthma and fewer allergies. But the science is not clear-cut, she adds, and questions remain about whether other factors of farm life close proximity to animals, diet, spending time outdoors could have swayed results.

And for young children, whose underdeveloped immune systems stimulate them more vulnerable, the dangers of raw milk make it hard to recommend. For an adult its not really worse than eating raw oysters or buds, she explains. But I would say its one of the most risky foods you could devote a child under five.

Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures, the nations largest raw milk dairy farm, would disagree. Hes been producing and bottling raw milk in Fresno, California, for 17 years. Yes, raw milk can be risky, he says. But I can make a very good debate that its safer than pasteurized milk if made expressly for human consumption.

McAfees passion sets him at the forefront of the pro-raw movement. Hes a gregarious dairyman a fast talker who rattles off the benefits while steering his truck one-handed as we ride toward the milking barn. He is eager to demonstrate how sanitary the operation is. Milk is pumped straight from the cow into super-chilled cisterns. There its held for 24 hours while samples are sent to be tested for E coli and other harmful bacteria.

Business is booming, he says, with annual sales at $12 m and growing and some 80,000 people drinking his milk in California, including celebrity fan Martin Sheen.

Actor
Actor Martin Sheen and advocates attend a press conference for the Fresh Raw Milk Act at Whole Foods in Venice, California, in 2008. Photo: Chris Wolf/ FilmMagic

At the farm I get chatting with Maggie and Dana Troutman, raw milk drinkers from San Diego. Maggie says she was raised on the stuff and claims her family has no history of disease as a result. When Im traveling and I cant get my raw milk, I notice a difference in two days, she says. I dont feel strong. Its like my cells are starving.

But Organic Pastures has had its growing pains. Their milk has been linked to multiple outbreaks, including an E coli outbreak in 2006 that left several children hospitalized. One of those children was seven-year-old Chris Martin, who developed acute kidney failing that virtually killed him.

Chriss mother, Mary McGonigle-Martin, told me she didnt grown up feeing healthy but was drawn to raw milk because she had heard it was more nutritious. I thought it was supposed to be good for you. I was lulled into a false sense of security.

McGonigle-Martins story highlights just how personal, and at times contentious, the debate has become. The raw milk movement is, after all, fighting against a significant advancement in food security thats credited with saving millions of lives. In the early 20 th century before pasteurization became widespread in the US one in four foodborne illness were caused by milk. Today its less than 1 %.

But for those who love it, drinking raw milk isnt just about the savour or supposed health-giving impacts its about a return to a pre-industrialized past, a rejection of mass production, a middle finger to the government for limiting food options.( Its legal to buy plenty of other things that kill you, after all, from cigarettes to soda .)

When I speak to my students now, they are far more concerned about things like antibiotics, GMOs, pesticides and hormones in their food, says Jay-Russell, the microbiologist. They think theyre avoiding the horrors of industrialized, processed food.

But, she adds, people have forgotten that sometimes there was a reason for those processes in the first place.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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