Ask the RD
Question: What’s your take on raw milk? Is it more nutritious than pasteurized milk? Is it safe?
Answer: In choosing to emphasize whole foods and unprocessed foods, both worthwhile endeavors, some people have embraced the idea that raw, unpasteurized milk is preferable to pasteurized milk. However, you have asked the most important question: Is it safe? In the case of milk, safety should be your biggest consideration.
Pasteurization is the process of heating milk (or other foods) in order to destroy potentially harmful pathogens. It became widely used in the 1920s, when milk was a major source of foodborne illnesses (AAP 2014). The process, which varies from heating to lower temperatures for a longer time to heating to very high temperatures for a short time, also prolongs milk’s shelf life. Raw milk may contain a variety of organisms that cause foodborne illness (Quigley 2013); the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni has caused several recent outbreaks linked to raw milk (Mungai, Behravesh & Gould 2014).
One reason milk is a risky food is that it is so nutritious. It has fat, protein and carbohydrates, in addition to vitamins and minerals, which are good for us, and which also make milk a great place for pathogens to grow. Think about raw milk the way you’d think about raw meat. When you buy raw meat at the supermarket, you handle it carefully, take it home and cook it. If it weren’t cooked, the potential for foodborne illness would be great. It’s much the same with raw milk.
Because of the risk of foodborne illness, and the comparable nutrition of pasteurized milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pregnant women, infants and children consume only pasteurized milk (AAP 2014). Even for healthy adults, the risk is high enough that many states have banned the sale of raw milk. Pasteurized milk is simply a safer choice.