In Great Britain, 0.7 percent of all milk sold is raw. It may not sound like a lot, until you consider that it can only be sold on the farm. The fact is that people value raw milk and are willing to seek it out for a multitude of reasons — health, taste, animal welfare and the environment, for example — even if doing so requires more than a simple trip to the grocery store.
You may also consider raw milk to be a thing of the past, something that was consumed out of necessity because pasteurization hadn’t yet been invented. But raw milk is making a comeback and is increasingly popular among those looking for natural, whole and unprocessed foods in a form that’s as close to nature as you can get, i.e., raw.
In the video above, Mark McAfee, founder and chairman of the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), explains why raw milk is like no other food— a powerful food that’s the first food of life for many creatures.
Raw Milk Is the First Food of Life
McAfee explains that while pasteurized milk has a lack of value added, there’s innate value added in raw milk, including its rich beneficial bacteria counts, that can’t be faked. When thinking about the first food of life for humans — breast milk — it’s always consumed “raw.”
Pasteurizing this perfect food would destroy many of the properties that make is so life-sustaining, and yet, milk from cows is considered different. As McAfee puts it:
“Raw milk is the first food of life and builds immunity and strength. Yes, a mother’s milk is raw milk. It is an optimal first nourishment but also has been the focal point for vicious food fighting for more than 110 years. With the discovery of the human biome and human genomics, raw milk comes center stage.
Now we have the possibility to assure that raw milk is safe, yet stays unchanged and whole. It is now fostering the health of our immune systems that have been suppressed and weakened by antibiotic abuse, GMOs, preservatives, pesticide and herbicide exposure and sterilized foods. It is time to embrace the farmer and strengthen and heal thyself gut biome first!”
For thousands of years, humans have depended on milk from camels, sheep, goats and cows in order to survive. The milk was available immediately, with no hunting, fishing or growing required, and it was portable, able to travel with the people.
As long as the animals had access to grass, rain and the sun, they could provide a whole food in the form of raw milk, rich in biodiverse bacteria (which only increased if the milk was fermented), along with food to feed these bacteria (prebiotics). It’s now known that high levels of bacteria, along with biodiverse bacteria and prebiotics to feed them, are essential for optimal health.
“Pasteurization destroyed that,” McAfee said, and while yogurt brings some of the benefits back (with only three or four bacterial strains), it can’t compare with the complexity of raw milk. Breast milk, for example, contains 700 different types of bacteria and 2,500 proteins and pathogens, which give infants’ immune systems a chance to develop.
Raw milk, which is a living food, is also incredibly complex, and its benefits come in the fact that it’s not sterilized like so many “dead” processed foods are today.
The Dark Ages of Raw Milk
There was a period of time, from 1860 to the 1920s, when raw milk went through what McAfee describes as a “dark age.” The cows’ diets, combined with unsanitary conditions, raw sewage mixed with water and lack of refrigeration, led to the spread of disease like tuberculosis and typhoid. A lot of people died from raw milk that came from these unsanitary distillery dairies raising malnourished cows.
The cows were brought from the countryside into urban environments, fed unusual diets that cows are not meant to eat, and raised in unclean conditions. The outcome was milk that killed up to 40 to 50 percent of those who drank it.
The beginning of pasteurization started around this time and was hailed as a panacea because you didn’t have to worry about the milk being clean anymore. Even milk riddled with pathogenic bacteria could be safely consumed once it was heated to high temperatures. It wasn’t until decades later that it began to be understood how much was lost during the process.
“There is a dark period. That dark period has been amplified and made into a political mantra against raw milk, when in fact it was never raw milk’s problem. It was mankind and what we did to the cows and the environment that was the problem,” McAfee said.
There Are Two Kinds of Raw Milk Today
The underpinnings that led to the dark ages of raw milk are still found today in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where most commercial dairy is produced. On CAFOs, milk can be produced in filthy conditions, then heated until all the pathogens are gone.
Never mind that, along with killing “germs,” pasteurization kills off beneficial organisms in the milk and prevents natural souring (while naturally soured milk can still be consumed, pasteurized milk past its prime will quickly go bad).1 According to RAWMI:2
“Raw milk is a living whole food that contains: enzymes, a biodiversity of beneficial bacteria, sugars, proteins, fats, minerals, antibodies and other essential elements needed to nourish a growing baby.
Raw milk also contains a complementary immune system that provides an environment that tends to suppress the growth of pathogenic bacteria in favor of beneficial lactic acid producing bacteria. Raw milk inside of the animal generally does not contain bacteria; however, as the milk exits the breast or teat canal, protective resident bacteria join the raw milk to complete its genome.”
Today, however, there are two kinds of raw milk produced. One is the type produced on CAFOs, which is intended to be shipped to a creamery for pasteurization. This type of milk is regulated according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which has no requirement that the milk be tested for pathogens.
“PMO raw milk is permitted to contain high levels of bacteria. This is because this milk will be pasteurized by heat treatment. Milk produced under the PMO is collected from many dairies and combined together at the creamery for processing and the production of final processed dairy products,” RAWMI notes.3 It has to be pasteurized, as drinking this type of CAFO milk raw could easily make you sick.
The other type of raw milk is that produced with the intent of being directly consumed by humans. While there are no national regulations for human consumption raw milk, individual states may have their own. RAWMI has also created standards to ensure its quality and safety.
“Our Common Standards set a benchmark for national raw milk production and safety. Raw milk for human consumption always comes from one dairy that works very hard to assure that the milk they produce is safe and clean. Human consumption raw milk is never combined with other dairies’ raw milk,” according to RAWMI. The Common Standards include:4
Have a Risk Analysis and Management Plan (RAMP) for raw milk production; this is a basic food safety plan that includes risk assessment and mitigation for milk handling, manure management, feed sources, human factors (such as health of the milking team), nutritional management of the cow, cleaning protocol, health screening of animals and much more.
Raw milk shall not contain zoonotic pathogens including salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter and listeria.
Testing for coliform bacteria, with a target rate of less than 10 coliforms per milliliter (ml) raw milk over a three-month average.
Testing for Standard Plate Count, with a rolling three-month average of less than 5,000 per ml raw milk.
Sell raw milk for direct human consumption only from their own farm (not comingled with raw milk from other dairies).
Provide documentation and assurance that herds are tuberculosis (TB) free and tested once per year or meet local TB requirements.
Provide documentation or assurance that herds are brucellosis free.
RAWMI even provides additional training to further ensure quality raw milk, including farm biosecurity (how to protect the herd), basic microbiology and preventive herd health medicine. RAWMI adds:5
“These standards are not a guarantee of perfectly safe food. However, when followed diligently, these guidelines will dramatically reduce the risk of illness from consumption of raw milk and improve the safety of raw milk. The Common Standards serve as the basis for RAWMI farmer listing, and are a portal to a world of continued learning.”
Raw Milk Feeds Your Body on a Microbial Level
While it’s long been said that “you are what you eat,” a more accurate description might be “you are what your microbes eat.” There are more bacteria and other microorganisms in your body than there are human cells, and your unique microbial community is constantly changing in response to your environment, including your diet.
McAfee describes the research of Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., a molecular biologist with Princeton University, which revealed bacteria communicate with each other using a chemical language called “quorum sensing.” Every type of bacteria secretes small molecules, which allow the bacteria to “count” how many of its own kind there are, as well as measure the strength of competing colonies.
Once the colony reaches critical mass, the bacteria spring into action as a synchronized group, based on the group behavior programmed into its genes. So the microorganisms living in your digestive tract form a very important “inner ecosystem” that influences countless aspects of your health.
More specifically, the type and quantity of organisms in your gut interact with your body in ways that can either prevent or encourage the development of many diseases and mental health problems, and eating microbial-rich foods like raw milk, raw milk cheese and kefir are one way to support the bacterial communities in your body.
The Science Behind Raw Milk
McAfee believes there’s a breakdown in understanding among scientists, most of whom will argue that breastfeeding is incredibly important for infants, yet fail to make the connection that breast milk is raw milk. After breastfeeding ends, the next logical step, he says, is to continue drinking raw milk.
At least 16 peer-reviewed studies have detailed the benefits of drinking raw milk, yet still include a disclaimer at the end that the scientists can’t recommend drinking it because of the risks. RAWMI was created for this purpose, McAfee says, to show that raw milk isn’t high risk at all but is actually very low risk, with proven health benefits. Among them is alkaline phosphatase, an enzyme found in raw milk, that’s known to be anti-inflammatory.
“[I]ntestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), a potent endogenous anti-inflammatory enzyme, is directly stimulated by various components of milk (e.g., casein, calcium, lactose and even fat),” researchers wrote in Medical Hypotheses,6 “… and detoxifies pro-inflammatory microbial components … making them unable to trigger inflammatory responses and generate chronic low-grade inflammation leading to insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, Type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity, known risk factors for CVD [cardiovascular disease].
Milk alkaline phosphatase is present in raw milk and dairy products but deactivated by pasteurization. “If confirmed, this “alkaline phosphatase” hypothesis will highlight the protective effects of milk alkaline phosphatase and promote the consumption of (microbiologically safe) raw milk and dairy products,” the researchers concluded.7
Other research has found children who drink raw milk have a lower risk of developing allergies and asthma.8 And, early human studies suggested raw milk was superior to pasteurized milk in protecting against infection, diarrhea, rickets, tooth decay and tuberculosis.9
Raw milk also contains protective components that aren’t found in pasteurized milk, including antibodies and beneficial bacteria that help to kill pathogens in the milk, as well as compounds that prevent pathogen absorption across the intestinal wall. There are a variety of immune-strengthening components in raw milk as well, including lymphocytes, immunoglobulins and growth factors.10
More Reasons to Choose Raw Unprocessed Milk
Raw milk and pasteurized milk are entirely different foods, with different outcomes in your body. While raw milk is noninflammatory and inhibits MAST cell release of histamines, pasteurized milk is the most allergenic food in the U.S., McAfee notes. He also points out that pasteurized milk is often associated with lactose intolerance and is often not digestible by children, whereas raw milk is highly digestible and gut friendly.
Anecdotal reports of customers drinking raw milk suggest recovery from a variety of conditions, from ear infections, asthma and eczema to dental problems, ulcers, lactose intolerance and depressed immunity. There are cultural differences, too, as while many Europeans are free to enjoy a glass of crisp raw milk anytime they like courtesy of self-serve vending machines, in North America selling raw milk is often forbidden.
In the U.S., efforts continue to expand access to raw milk — the ONLY food banned from interstate commerce — and, in so doing, protect people’s right to eat and drink what they please. If you’re interested in raw milk, in states where the sale of raw milk is legal, RAWMI lists farmers on their website who have gone through their training program and demonstrated, through testing, that their milk is consistently clean and safe.11
In other states, those wishing to purchase raw milk often purchase a share of the cow or herd directly from a raw milk farmer. As with all foods, source matters, and this is just as true with raw milk as any other food, so be sure to review these tips for finding high-quality raw milk sources.