My Raw Milk Conversion: Why & How I Decided to Embrace Fresh, Local Milk

March 9, 2012 in Evidence-Based Science, Food Movement, Health News, How-To, Nutrients, Sustainability by Heba

Raw_Milk_is_Delicious

There’s absolutely nothing more refreshing to drink than fresh raw milk. Hands down.

I’ve been buying raw (unpasteurized) milk straight from a local dairy farmer for almost a year now. I’ve had this draft on my blog that I’ve been meaning to complete and publish for … close to a year. It’s about time for me to share the good news! To be honest, it took some time for me to warm up to the idea of drinking whole milk, unpasteurized. Wouldn’t I gain weight? (Hah, I was glad to learn that the opposite is true!) Was it dangerous? To put it lightly, I wasn’t immediately comfortable with the idea of drinking milk straight from a farm animal, without any “disinfection”. I initially made the decision out of necessity. Now, almost a year into it, I can honestly say that raw dairy – including full-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, butter – is my favorite food group, and that I’ve only experienced health and weight loss from drinking the stuff; never any kind of health issue or disease. What? You need more details to believe me? Well, read on, dear friends …

First Things First: An Introduction to Raw Milk

What is raw milk? 

Raw milk is milk straight from the cow, goat or sheep – whole, unfiltered, unheated, unrefined, with full fat. It is unpasteurized and unhomogenized.

Not all raw milk is equal. Most people who are proponents of it, when they discuss raw milk, are referring to milk from pasture-raised cows that are at least mostly grass-fed, and that are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. However, when anti-raw-milk people discuss it, they usually refer to studies that do not take the source of the milk into account, and might include milk from feedlot (conventionally-raised) cows. It also does not necessarily take into account practices, whether raw milk is from cows that are tested, how frequently they are tested, etc. All is lumped into one “raw” category typically.

What is pasteurization and homogenization? 

All milk sold in grocery stores – even the organic ones – are pasteurized. While pasteurization kills bacteria that could be harmful, it also kills good bacteria and destroys enzymes that are helpful for digesting the milk (this is why many people are lactose intolerant). Most milk  nowadays – yes, even organic - is ultra-pasteurized (UHT) which means that it’s been subjected to even higher temperatures (i.e. kills more bacteria and destroys more nutrients and enzymes) and can last for several weeks (sometimes up to 2 months) in the fridge. But if you leave the carton of pasteurized or UHT milk out on the counter for a day, or when it’s past the date, it rots and smells putrid. It becomes completely unfit to drink or cook with. Raw milk on the other hand doesn’t really rot or “expire”; it just sours. Clabbered milk, or soured milk, is a whole food that is perfectly safe to drink or use in cooking. Heat-sensitive lactic acid producing bacteria in the raw milk proliferate, and you are left with a probiotic-rich drinkable yogurt that is actually good for your digestion.

Raw unhomogenized milk produces a natural creamline, where the lighter fat molecules rise to the top and separate from the liquid. Homogenization is an invasive process that breaks down the milk’s fluffy fat molecules into tiny parts that are integrated into the liquid part of the milk. The problem with this process is that it subjects these fats to oxidation. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that oxidized fats are a real health problem; and that they contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. If you’re curious about the process, this is what happens:

“The milk is pumped under high pressure which smashes the milk molecules so hard. Homogenization splits and exposes the molecules.” The hard science goes like this: A raw milk molecule is surrounded by a membrane, which protects it from oxygen. Homogenization decreases the average diameter of each fat globule and significantly increases the surface area. Because there’s now not enough membrane to cover all of this new surface area, the molecules are easily exposed to oxygen, and the fats  become oxidized (Wartman).

Aris_Cow_Raw_Milk

The beautiful Guernsey cow, Aris, at Sunny Knoll Ecofarm in Virginia.

Our Raw Milk Testimony

As I mentioned before, we initially sought out raw milk out of necessity. You see, my husband caught a terrible stomach bug when he was in Hawaii for a conference in 2009, which landed him in the hospital a week before our wedding. Yeah, to say that I was pretty freaked out is an understatement! Thank God, he somehow became well enough to get married to me a week later. Unfortunately, the severity of the bug and the cocktail of antibiotics he was given left his stomach really sensitive, and he became completely unable to digest store-bought dairy products. We dabbled with lactose-free dairy for a bit, but it was too processed for my liking, and it tasted nothing like the real whole milk we have been used to drinking all our lives. And cheese … almost no lactose-free cheese existed in stores and those that were available did not taste good. The lactase pills my husband took from time to time to aid in digesting even foods with a little bit of dairy didn’t really do their job … We exhausted all conventional options before exploring others.

There had to be another solution to my husband’s dairy intolerance. He wanted to enjoy milk as before, and I wanted to drink it without feeling guilty! After days of online research, I came across this FAQ about raw dairy, which gave me a glimmer of hope:

Chances are good that you may [be able to digest raw milk], even if you’re of African or Asian descent, assuming you can find a reliable source near your home. Unheated milk contains its full complement of enzymes and lactase-producing bacteria needed by our bodies to break down and assimilate the milk sugar lactose. These helpful bacteria are killed in the pasteurization and homogenization process. Fermented milk products, such as yogurt and kefir, naturally lower in lactose due to the actions of various Lactobacillus and other lactic acid-producing bacteria, may be better tolerated by some.

Prior to reading this, I had no idea that unheated (unpasteurized) milk has lactase already in it! That’s why so many people are “lactose-intolerant”. They’ve been drinking denatured milk, with a whole lot of lactose and no enzyme to effectively digest it! After reading many anecdotal experiences online of people whose digestive systems, allergies, and other serious conditions have been alleviated or even healed by drinking raw milk, I was … skeptical. It can’t be this simple, I thought. These stories have to be so few and far between, and there must be a good reason why pasteurization came about! Weren’t people dying left and right before this noble process? (Actually, the story of pasteurization is more complicated than it seems.)

I did what anyone considering raw dairy would do: I consulted with a physician. Not so smart, it seems, because apparently physicians have almost no nutritional training, and most have no idea that there are people who actually still consume raw milk. The basic response from the doc amounted to “You’re nuts. Your husband should just quit the dairy and keep taking the lactase pills whenever necessary.” I was not thrilled with his answer, and so I discarded it.

As all good things start, two friends – each from a different background – started raving about raw milk. One of them is a mom with four young children, and she gives them raw milk frequently from a local farmer. The other friend is a young working professional who started reading about the importance of healthy saturated fats, and discovered that the milk that is sold in stores is nutritionally inferior to the raw stuff. When I started reading about the importance of healthy fats, I decided to look into raw milk more closely. But because raw milk has been so demonized in media and conventional medicine, I was really suspicious at first. I read a lot of information about the risks associated with raw milk as well as the supposed benefits, and I decided to give it a shot.

I contacted the Weston A. Price Chicago local chapter leader, and she recommended a few local sources. After all that research, I finally knew what I was after:

  • Exclusively grass-fed: The raw milk had to come from exclusively grass-fed cows, goats or sheep (I prefer the taste of cow milk to the other two though), but in all cases, I was not comfortable with any grain supplementation.
  • Organic pasture: This grass has got to be organically cared for. No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on there, please.
  • Older breed of cowsThe breed of the cows was important, I’d learned. Older breeds like most African and Asian cows, as well as most Guernseys, Brown Swiss and Jerseys produce an A2 beta casein (milk protein) that is more digestible by the human body. All milk found in North American grocery stores is produced by newer breeds like Holsteins. The milk proteins that the newer breeds produce (A1 beta casein) is mutated, and even linked to chronic conditions in scientific experiments documented by Keith Woodford, author of Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk. (Check out this 2 minute video explaining the difference between the two casein types). So, I was on a mission to find a pretty Guernsey, Jersey or Brown Swiss that is tested to make sure the milk produced is A2 milk.
  • Pathogen testing: The cows should be routinely tested for pathogens.
  • Unprocessed in any way: I wanted my milk full-fat and unhomogenized … which I didn’t have to even worry about, because all raw milk is naturally unprocessed in that way!
  • Small local farm: The dairy had to be from a small local farm that I can visit any time I’d like, and whose practices I can verify.
  • Glass packaging: I wanted the dairy packaged in glass. Why ruin perfect raw milk by having it packaged in plastic with all the BPA and other chemicals leaching into it?

In May 2011, after we found a source for raw milk that met every one of these criteria, we placed an order through email, and went to the designated pick-up location to pick up the dairy in the city. The creamy raw milk, pastured soy-free eggs, and other delicious raw dairy products were exchanged with cash from the back of a van at a street intersection (yeah, the interaction is as funny as it sounds).

We went home, and took out two glasses for the both of us. Hands a little shaky, I twisted the tin caps off the glass jars, and carefully poured half a glass first. I brought it up to my mouth, and sniffed a bit before gulping down a generous sip. Seriously — and I swear I’m not exaggerating — it was the tastiest sip of cool creamy milk I had ever tasted. I had fallen in love, and I was never going back to that ultra-pasteurized grocery store junk that pretended it was real milk ever again.

Raw_Milk_with_Raw_ABC_Cookie

Here’s my first cup of raw milk with a raw vegan ABC cookie (recipe on my blog!)

You want to know the craziest part? The raw milk (and other raw dairy) was not only fully tolerated by my lactose-intolerant husband; but it actually improved his overall digestion over time. The probiotics in the milk helped his gut flora repopulate over time, making his digestion more resilient. (FYI, it was found that healthy gut flora improves immunity.)

Dealing with the Doubters & Haters

Yes, I know what you may be thinking: “It’s rash. There are risks associated with raw milk.” To that, I have two answers:

Isn’t there a risk with everything in this life? Crossing the street, driving a car, eating at many restaurants (each sourcing its food from random places), flying a plane, confessing your love to a good friend – I can go on – but you get the point. At the same time, risks can be controlled in different ways: for example, I would never in a million years drink unpasteurized milk from conventionally raised cows. The criteria I mentioned above for selecting my source of raw milk certainly mitigates the risks substantially. What I am not trying to do in this post is try to defend the decision to drink raw milk; but I am simply sharing my experience as well as some resources you may find interesting or helpful. I am by no means implying that everyone should drink raw milk – or even drink dairy at all if it does not make sense to you – but I want to share some of the information I have come across recently, because knowledge is power … or something like that.

If you listen to government health officials and conventional medical staff, you will probably not relate to this post. That’s up to you. But I personally don’t trust that the government is in a position to make reliable health recommendations and I find most government guidelines to be misguided or problematic at best, especially when it comes to food freedom. And I’m not alone. Apparently, a small survey revealed that 93% of raw milk drinkers don’t trust the government for dietary advice either. This is also why I don’t believe that the government’s cracking down on local farms is ethical. In fact, if you take the time to watch the documentary Farmageddon, you’ll see why I think these crackdowns are downright evil.

Well, they’re not evil if they actually save people from infections; right? If raw milk is dangerous, as the CDC insists it is, then these crackdowns on small family farms would be understood. But here’s the thing: the crackdowns have nothing to do with the milk’s safety, and everything to do with the dairy industry’s monopoly and its connection to government officials. Take family farmer Vernon Hershberger for instance who faces up to three years in prison, and fines up to $10,000 simply for providing organic raw milk to consenting persons who have never been sick from consuming the milk he provides! Simultaneously, with twenty-nine people dead from a recent listeria outbreak from cantaloupes, another outbreak from ground turkey, what are the legal actions that have been taken against these producers, who actually caused people to get sick and a number of them to die?

Someone somewhere decided that raw milk isn’t safe to consume, but raw fish (sushi), raw meat (steak tartar), and raw eggs (eggnog) are perfectly fine … despite the lack of scientific evidence that raw milk is “inherently dangerous” and somehow more dangerous than other raw foods which are sold in stores, and also despite the fact that some of the sources of these other raw foods might be highly questionable and people have gotten sick from them! Whack. I won’t go into details here, but just consider that the largest foodborne salmonella outbreak related to milk was in 1985. In that case, the pasteurized low fat (2%) milk came from a large dairy farm and yet, it killed 9 people and infected 5,295 people.

The Legal (Fishy) Issues

In Hershberger’s case, raw milk sales aren’t legal in his state. Yes, raw milk is  ‘illegal’ in 15 states, and ‘restricted’ in 26 others, which I find udderly ridiculous (pun intended). Besides the obvious fact that the U.S. laws should guarantee the freedom of buying whatever foods you deem fit for your consumption (and should not control individuals’ buying choices), this article from Counter Think does a good job of humorously explaining the irony behind the government’s choice to ban raw milk specifically while failing to regulate or ban actually harmful artificial ingredients in processed foods and carcinogenic chemicals in personal care products … But, I digress – raw milk is not only not harmful; in many cases (if you know the source) it is one of the most beneficial sources of nutrition for humans!

In Chicago, I bought raw milk directly from a farmer, which is legal. When I moved to Virginia, I had to join a cow-share (also known as a herd share). So, instead of “buying milk”‘; I technically own a part of a Guernsey cow, and the milk it provides is mine to deal with. Yes, it’s not the most convenient way to get the milk, but I’m thankful it’s there, because otherwise, it would be technically completely illegal to even drink the milk. Whack again, I know.

Raw Milk is Better than Gold 

So, why do I think raw milk is so great? Oh let me count the ways … these are just off the top of my head:

(1) Knowing the source of your dairy, and being sure your milk doesn’t have the rBGH (hormone) or antibiotics - Nowadays, most conventional milk is laced with a ton of antibiotics (antibiotic-resistance, anyone?) and some are even tainted with growth hormones. Gross. I’d steer clear from that kind of milk if you’re looking for good health.

While organic milk is better than conventional milk because it at least guarantees that the animal received no antibiotics or growth hormones, buying organic milk does not guarantee that the animal is pasture-raised (free roaming) or grass-fed (it could be grain fed, and that’s not traditional cow/goat/sheep food because they are naturally grazing animals). If you buy milk from a local farm, you can visit the farm yourself to see the way the animals are raised, where they’re milked and how the milk is handled.

Guernsey_Cows_Raw_Milk

The lovely Guernsey cows, RuthAnn & her calf Buttercup, at Sunny Knoll Ecofarm in Virginia.

And let me tell you, it’s very reassuring to know where your food comes from (as was customary in the days prior to the industrial revolution), and to visit the farm yourself if you want to see the cows grazing on lush grass, as I did last year when deciding on a local farm to own my cow share and get my dairy.

(2) Vitamins, bacteria and enzymes are preserved – According to this post from Nourished Kitchen, raw milk is a living food:

“Several of milk’s natural components including beneficial bacteria, food enzymes, natural vitamins and immunoglobulins are heat-sensitive.  These health-promoting components of natural, raw milk are destroyed by heating and therefore not present in pasteurized or UHT milk. Indeed, many foods – milk included – provide best nutrition when consumed in a raw or minimally cooked state. While heating milk doesn’t change the mineral composition to any great degree, it does, however, change its bioavailability rendering all that lovely calcium less absorbable”.

Here’s a more specific fact for you: raw grass-fed milk has five times more cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than regular milk; it contains more omega-3 fats, as well as more beta-carotene.

(3) Protection from asthma and other health disorders – There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to show that many have been healed by consuming raw milk. Improvements in autism, asthma, metabolic syndrome, mood disorders, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease … I can go on. To read some testimonials, click here. But for all you doubters out there, a large European study known as the GABRIELA study has shown that children who drink raw milk are 40% less likely to develop allergies and asthma than children who drink pasteurized milk. In my husband’s case, raw milk was not only more digestible; the probiotics (good bacteria) therein actually helped repair his digestion. And frankly, that’s good enough evidence for me.

(4) Supporting local agriculture as opposed to oppressive feedlots - Buying milk that has been shipped from miles away compromises the milk’s freshness and supports big agribusiness which often has less than stellar practices within the dairy industry. Besides the antibiotics, hormones, and damaging effects of homogenization and pasteurization mentioned earlier, the milk in a carton in your local grocery stores is not from one or two … or three cows. It’s a mix of hundreds of cows from different dairies, so it’s practically impossible to trace back to one farm or source. You can’t verify the quality even if you wanted to. Additionally, the cost of the milk is divided among many: the grocery store, the supplier, the dairy farm and the farmer. If you buy locally-produced milk, you can know your farmer and your cow, and the money you pay for your milk goes to support an honest worker in your local economy. Local farming is – beyond a doubt – more sustainable for the environment, your health, and your local economy. Wins all around.

Raw_Milk_is_Safer_than_Pasteurized

Who can say no to raw cream and pastured eggs?

Feedback on the Harvard Raw Milk Debate

On February 16, 2012, the Harvard Food Law Society hosted a debate on the legal, nutritional, and safety aspects of raw milk. I scheduled the debate on my calendar ahead of time, and listened with intent as each of the panelists shared her or his point of view. I took copious notes, as I didn’t know whether the debate would be recorded (it was). It’s an hour and half long – feel free to listen to as much of it as you’d like. My comments are below the video. 

Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights were on the pro-raw milk side. Lawyer Fred Pritzker and Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, director of the Agriculture Department’s Dairy and Food Inspection Division in the state of Minnesota, were on the anti-raw milk side. Both sides presented their evidence, and in my estimation, the pro-raw milk side won by a landslide.

As expected, safety of raw milk was questioned over and over again during the debate, even though the two debating against raw milk could not provide any evidence to show that raw milk is especially unsafe as to warrant banning. In an upcoming post in the near future, I’ll write up highlights from the debate and give a brief explanation of why I think the pro raw milk side was more convincing based on what was presented. In the meantime, feel free to watch it and I’d be curious to find out what you conclude from it! Please share in the comments.

How to Advocate for Raw Milk

Even if you’re not passionate about raw milk, or if you’re not even convinced it’s a food that you would like to consume, you should still advocate for food freedom. How would you like it if your favorite local foods – certain vegetables, nuts, sushi, etc – were not only heavily regulated, but also banned in your area? Wouldn’t you be outraged? I urge you to sign this petition to ask your U.S. Representative to co-sponsor HR 1830, a bill introduced by Rep. Ron Paul to allow the interstate shipment of raw milk and raw milk products for human consumption. Click here to sign the petition. Join the raw milk revolution.

If you’re interested in obtaining raw milk for you or your family, your best bet is to navigate this page “Where Can I Find Raw Milk?” on the Real Milk website, which lists local farmers by state. It’s definitely not an exhaustive list though, because some farmers who have gotten in legal trouble are wary of posting their information so publicly. Another good resource is the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit with the sole goal of educating people about real food, traditional food preparation, and supporting local farmers. You can find a local chapter leader of the foundation in many parts of the world. Don’t be shy to send a short email to ask about raw milk in your hometown (feel free to link this post and say that I sent you). To my knowledge, these are the best two resources. You can also always ask people you trust who drink raw milk about the sources they use to buy it.

Having read this expose, I’m curious to hear your thoughts: how do you feel about raw dairy? Have you tried it? Would you try it?

**This post was submitted at Butter Believer’s Sunday School and The Healthy Home Economist’s Monday Mania blog carnival.