Some people are worried that the vitamins and nutrients found in the standard gallon of grocery store milk are not enough. They say we need our milk straight from the udder, before it has a chance to be stripped of it’s healthy qualities and super bacteria.  These people are raw milk advocates, and they want to take us back several centuries to a time when modern medicine and science didn’t muddy up the purity of their bovine beverages. But what are they talking about? Is there any merit in their argument? Does it really make that much of a difference? I hope to explore the answers to those questions in this very post.

Briefly, French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard developed pasteurization, warming beverages to a pre-boil, in 1862 to prevent germs from contaminating wine. Before Pasteur, diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and Q-feverwere commonly found in beverages such as milk, but people didn’t even know it since germ theory was in it’s infancy. Today’s raw milk may contain all kinds of unhealthy passengers such as salmonella, Lysteria monocytogenes, yersinia enterocolitica, and e.coli bacteria.

Raw milk advocates ignore the benefits of pasteurized milk and even go so far as to claim that drinking unmolested milk will boost your immune system and prevent disease. One of the leading advocates quacking about raw milk is Dr. Mercola, an osteopath, who has said “I have seen so many of my patients recover their health with raw milk that I perceive this as one of the most profoundly healthy foods you can consume,”.  Dr. Mercola has uttered all kinds of crazy things.  His web site says that he believes “This higher intelligence, which we call the ‘Health’ is conscious, precognitive, omnipresent and is a direct reflection of the Divine.”  Deep thoughts by Dr. Mercola.

Time magazine’s recent article on the topic quoted Susan Mueller’s “success” introducing raw milk to the diet of her two daughters.

“the previous year, she had bronchitis, an ear infection, a urinary-tract infection and three or four colds. This year she missed two days of school all winter.”

This is a prime example of Correlation Does Not Imply Causation.  Just because her daughter was sick one year and not sick as much the next, doesn’t mean that raw milk boosted her child’s immune system.  One would have to point to double blind controlled studies to prove a link between raw milk and immunity.  One would also have to have some kind of known mechanism for how something like raw milk could prevent ear and urinary tract infections.  On the face, the idea is absurd. lists all kinds of fallacious arguments for raw milk.  I’ll list them here, and respond to each one.

  • Raw Milk was used as a medicine centuries ago.  Was this before or after doctors were bleeding sick patients with leeches?  Was this before or after scientists understood germ theory?  This argument is an Appeal to Antiquity.  Just because an idea is older, doesn’t make it more correct.
  • Raw milk is the “stem cell” of food.  Stem cells basically have the potential to be any other kind of cell.  They’re like an uncommited superdelegate, if you catch my metaphor.  But I digress, what is he talking about here?  This seems to be a crude Ambiguos Assertion and Argument by Slogan– a fancy saying that means nothing, but seems intelligent, and ultimately not a quality argument.
  • You could live on it exclusively if you had to. Indeed, published accounts exist of people who have done just that. This is a hard one for me, but I think it may be a combination of Argument of Generalization and Appeal to Anonymous Authority.  Just because some people have been known to diet exclusively on raw milk (babies?) doesn’t mean that it’s better for you than pasteurized.  The source of this fact is not cited because it is probably an equivocation.

The FDA claims that pasteurization does not diminish any of the milk’s essential proteins, vitamins, or any other nutrients, much to the consternation of the raw advocates.  They also list a number of examples of raw milk causing widespread sickness, including a case in my home state of Ohio.  Most of the “benefits” of raw milk are the same as pasteurized, but the comparison of benefits between the two are often ignored by the believers.  They insist that just because something is “natural” it must be better.  But, such a belief is a slippery slope– I doubt they would extend that belief to eating uncooked meat.

Pasteurized milk can hardly be called a threat to society.  Even the pure dairy fanatics will tell you that there is nothing harmful or dangerous about distributing heat to milk for the purpose of killing bacteria.  It disturbs me that people would take that risk of exposing their children to disease so that they can get a few extra bacteria and a creamier tasting milk.  I say go with a cup of Activia and a glass of soy* ultra-pasteurized organic milk and you’re good to go.  The idea of drinking the contents of a dumb mammal’s teat has become less and less appealing the older I get.

*All beverages being fair… I threw soy milk under the bus.

*UPDATE*  Raw milk share program shut down because of illnesses, including one person paralyzed in the hospital.