This is the first in a three-part series about dairy. This week's topic is raw milk versus regular, pasteurized milk. The next part will examine alternative types of milk, like soy, goat, and almond, and in the final installment, local dairy farming will be discussed.
How has food become so confusing? As humans evolved and moved around the globe, more and more choices became available. As people moved into cities away from food sources (farms), food preservation methods became necessary. As demand for convenience and preference for a wider range of choices have grown, government regulations have increased accordingly. Now corporations producing large quantities of food would like to decrease their losses to weather and pests through genetic modification, but no one can predict the long-term effects on consumers of altering what used to be natural foods.
Some would argue that getting back to basics is best for human health, reducing or eliminating high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, saturated fats and high levels of processing from the diet. The concept is that if your grandmother (or great-grandmother) wouldn't recognize it, it shouldn't be on the plate or in the bowl.
Lately the discussion has been about milk, specifically store-bought, or regular, milk versus raw, or straight-from-the-cow, milk. Why is this important? In 2010, 271,000 dairy cows in Ohio produced more than 5.7 billion pounds of milk, or over 665,116,279 gallons. Understanding a bit about milk, its properties, digestion and processing is crucial.
Milk has been called "the complete food." It not only contains essential nutrients, but has been proven to assist with weight loss and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes and osteoporosis. Hunter/gatherer ancestors were able to survive longer between kills by drinking milk from goats, water buffalo, bison, camels, oxen, cows and other animals.
According to the USDA, essential nutrients are required for healthy body functioning. Usually these are not produced in enough quantity by the body for daily needs and must come from ingested foods. Milk is a source for a staggering nine that build bones, teeth and muscles, regulate fluids and blood pressure, help eyesight and skin, maintain healthy blood and nerve cells, promote digestion and provide energy. These nine nutrients are calcium, vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin and niacin.
Research has consistently shown that the addition of milk and dairy products to the diet helps people lose weight. A review of 16 studies appearing in January 2012's "International Journal of Obesity" concluded that three to four servings of dairy per day, as part of a reduced-calorie diet, helped dieters lose more weight and fat overall than those not eating dairy, and the loss was greater in the stomach area, critical to reducing risk of cardio-metabolic syndrome (CMS).
Ninety-nine percent of the body's calcium goes to the bones. Without proper skeletal support, the body's organs may not be able to function properly. It isn't only the calcium in milk that is essential, but the vitamin D that helps process the calcium. Several of the "essential nine" contribute to bone health in addition to magnesium, zinc and vitamin K also found in milk.
If doctors and researchers agree on milk's health benefits, why the controversy about regular or raw? A little more history provides the background.
As mentioned, hunter/gatherer and agrarian societies survived and thrived for millennia on raw milk, a young America included. Whiskey being a popular drink, distilleries began springing up in cities during the War of 1812, when European connections to spirits were cut. In a stroke of dumb founded ignorance and misguided effort to bring fresh milk to the city, someone came up with keeping cows on lots next to the distilleries and feeding them the cast-off waste grain.
The poor creatures became sickly from lack of nutrition on a grain diet (likened to humans eating only fermented oatmeal) and were trapped in horrific pens standing in manure. The milk was no longer the heavy, nutrient-rich beverage that enhanced human health, but a watery, dirty, bacteria-ridden liquid that city mothers fed to their children. Not surprisingly, disease among humans became rampant, and raw milk got the blame.
One reform contingent, led by Dr. Henry Coit of New Jersey, believed in milk certification. He helped establish a group called the Medical Milk Commission that created standards for cleanliness and hygiene on dairy farms, giving those that met the requirements their seal of approval in the form of certification. Consumers were assured of safe milk from these producers. However, it was far more expensive than non-certified milk.
Enter the other contingent, proponents of pasteurization and, worse, homogenization. Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy's department store, led this movement after losing a son to contaminated milk and invested heavily in it. The belief at the time was that heating the milk would kill all the harmful bacteria, and they were right. The problem with pasteurization (the heating process that partially or completely sterilizes raw food) is that it kills all of the good bacteria, too, and alters properties of the natural nutrients. Homogenization breaks milk fat into small particles, "blending" the cream and milk. It also heats the milk a second time, removing any remaining taste and nutritional value.
Farmers and small towns continued to sell and serve raw milk without the dire consequences of the raw city milk. In fact, raw milk was used for centuries as a powerful healing medicine. An orchestrated scare campaign against raw milk in the 1940's took care of that, after which states imposed regulations on what milk could be sold where. Thirty years later Americans were gaining weight and dying from cardiovascular-related diseases, so removing fat from the diet (and milk) became the answer.
This was another dubious deduction when it came to milk. As a "complete food" unto itself, milk's nutrients not only work with the body's chemistry and processes, but work within its own properties. Whole, raw milk has fat, but also contains fat-soluble vitamins and its own digestive enzymes that help the body process milk fat and get the maximum benefit from it. Skimming milk (raw or pasteurized) removes the beneficial fat and makes processing it more difficult for the body (especially the liver). There is little nutritional value left in skim milk, and the body is probably better off drinking plain water.
Regarding lactose intolerance, it is not an allergy to milk. Lactose is a milk sugar. If raw milk is left intact, its own lactase-producing bacteria and its enzymes work with the body to break the sugar down. Heating (i.e. pasteurization and homogenization) kills these enzymes and bacteria, so the body is left trying to balance the breakdown on its own. Many people who are lactose-intolerant can actually drink or eat raw milk products because it includes all of the necessary digestive bacteria. They may find that they can digest some regular milk products in small amounts with other food.
To be fair, the industry that pushed pasteurization and homogenization was most likely trying to make safe milk as accessible to as many people as possible, but comparatively the effectiveness of the end product was far removed from that of the healthy, raw "complete food."
The second article in this series of three will compare cow's milk to alternative milks, like goat, almond and soy.