Raw milk - magic bullet or health hazard?

Unpasteurised milk can be a divisive subject, says Laura Sevier, but most of what you hear about the white stuff is pure whitewash

A typical response to it is “Isn’t that gorgeous!”’ says farmer Keith Jefferson Smith, who sells raw milk at Walthamstow Farmers’ Market in London every Saturday. ‘Others say it reminds them of their childhood. Most remark on the sweetness.’

The milk he sells comes from his son’s dairy farm in Suffolk, where cows are farmed organically and biodynamically, grazing on grass for 10 months of the year. The sweetness, he explains, is because it is so fresh.

‘We milk the cows on Saturday and sell the milk on Sunday. The longer milk hangs around, the less sweet it is. Most milk you buy in shops is five days old by the time it reaches the shop, after it’s been collected, transported to dairies, pasteurised and packaged.’

Otherwise known as ‘green-top’, raw milk is the least processed milk you can buy. Long-term drinkers of this rare but much-loved substance say it is healthier, fresher and tastier than any other milk available. Others consider it a health hazard. Unlike the vast majority of the 13 billion litres of milk produced in the UK each year, raw milk has not been pasteurised (heat-treated) or homogenised (blasted at pressure through small holes to smash up the fat globules, spreading them evenly throughout the milk). While homogenisation is done for cosmetic reasons, to give the milk an even, white-all-over look, pasteurisation is done for health and safety reasons, in order to minimise the risk of food poisoning from salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli.

Does this automatically mean that drinking raw, unpasteurised milk is risky? The Food Standards Agency takes a safety-first stance, warning that it ‘could be harmful’ and should be avoided by the young, elderly, pregnant or unwell. By law, unpasteurised milk from cows, goats or sheep must carry a warning: ‘This milk has not been heat-treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health.’

It is illegal to sell unpasteurised milk in Scotland and in the US its sale is either severely restricted or banned, although people do find ways to get around it – a ‘cowshare’ project allows you to buy shares in a cow, for example. In England and Wales you can only buy it from farm gate-licensed suppliers – sales through other outlets were banned in 1985 – so you’ll find it on the odd milk float, in farm shops or at farmers’ markets. There are only 150 unpasteurised milk producers left in England and Wales (in 1997 there were 570) and now it represents just one per cent of the household market.

In spite of this lack of availability and off-putting cigarette-style health warnings, raw milk still has its loyal devotees. Many of Keith Jefferson Smith’s customers in London have strong views on the benefits of the milk, including a midwife ‘who recommends her ladies drink it to improve their immune system, which is completely contrary to the government view’, and a recent wave of articles in the mainstream papers discussing the pros and cons of raw milk have seen it attracting a growing number of customers.

‘Half the emails we’re receiving at the moment are people wanting to know where they can buy unpasteurised milk,’ says Arthur Betts of London Farmers’ Markets. ‘Most are from people who have never tried it, but who want to go to farmers’ markets for that purpose – to try it, to buy it. People are starting to realise that it makes a lot of difference.’

A whole food

Much of the evidence regarding its health benefits is anecdotal, but a 2006 study by the University of London found that drinking just a couple of glasses of raw milk a week reduced the risk of allergy-related conditions such as asthma, eczema and hay fever in children.

Dr Joseph Mercola, the American natural health expert who has ‘the most visited natural health site in the world’ is a firm believer that raw is best. On his site he says ‘many of my patients have gotten enormous benefits from raw milk and I strongly recommend you try it.’

Why? Because raw milk is an excellent whole food. It contains all the valuable enzymes that pasteurisation destroys (including lactase, which breaks down lactose, meaning it is possible for people who are lactose-intolerant to drink it). Enzymes help the body assimilate nutrients, including calcium. It has higher concentrations of probiotics (beneficial gut bacteria including lactobacillus and acidophilus), which help the body digest milk.

It also contains CLA, a ‘super-fat’ that promotes weight loss and is an anti-cancer agent, as well as more vitamins. According to US-based organisation the Campaign for Real Milk, raw milk contains 10 per cent more B vitamins and 25 per cent more vitamin C than conventional milk. Pasteurisation also distorts the fragile milk protein into a variety of different shapes or configurations, many of which are allergenic.

Another process that raw milk avoids is homogenisation. Raw milk contains the natural butterfat that is homogenised or removed in commercial milk. Without butterfat, the body cannot absorb and utilise the valuable vitamins and minerals in the milk. As Graham Harvey, author of We Want Real Food, says: ‘for maximum nutritional benefit, milk should be drunk whole with minimal processing… the very best is raw and unpasteurised from cows fed principally on grazed grass.’

People, cows and planet

Raw milk tends to be produced on farms with small grass-grazing herds. Grass-fed cows have a more free-range existence and their milk contains high levels of vitamins, including A, D, K and E, and essential fatty acids. Because this milk is not pasteurised, producers also have to be far more stringent on hygiene and the health of their herd than conventional dairy farmers. Farms are more regularly tested by the Dairy Hygiene 71 inspectorate. Ironically, the infections in cattle that can lead to human illness, such as TB and E. coli poisoning, are more likely to result from more intensive, industrialised farming. Kept in sheds as part of a large herd, disease is endemic. Around 40 per cent of the national herd suffers from mastitis or udder infection – hence the routine use of antibiotics.

Environmentally, raw milk has the lowest impact of any milk. Cows that graze on grass for much of the year don’t need extra feed, including grain and soya imported from abroad, required by higher-yield cows, which are kept indoors for long periods. Normal milk goes by milk tanker lorry to dairy, to supermarket distribution depot and thence to supermarket stores nationally. Raw milk has fewer milk miles and saves energy by not being heat-treated.

Not coming to a shop near you

Despite the many benefits of raw milk, supermarket restrictions can mean that selling it is a bit of a struggle. This can be seen as a plus, though. ‘The whole idea of having raw milk is that customers know exactly where it comes from,’ says Keith Jefferson Smith. ‘There’s a bond between consumer and producer.’

In an age where some three-quarters of all liquid milk is sold in supermarkets, however, can producers of raw milk compete?

Producer Steve Hook from East Sussex is optimistic. Over the past year his sales have grown from just one customer to delivering to more than 300 every week – including, he says, a number of nutritionists.

‘Normal milk has been so mucked around with it’s become a food that’s hard to digest,’ Hook says. ‘It goes through hell before it comes to the consumer. The best-quality milk is the least processed. The gentler you treat it, the better it will be. Once you’ve tried raw it’s hard to go back to pasteurised.’

It’s also a brilliantly versatile substance, with cream on top and ‘semi-skimmed’ milk below – or shake it to get ‘whole’ milk.

Try it at most farmers’ markets, and if you like it, support a raw milk producer near you.


This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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