Science Mom: Raw Milk Is A Raw Deal
American grocery shoppers love the word ‘natural’. There’s a certain sense that if we just eat enough ancient grains, avocado oil, and aÃ§ai berries, we’ll live forever — with glowing skin and radiant, shiny hair along the way, of course.
Realistically, there’s no magic-bullet food that can stave off the inevitable specter of mortality — no, not even pomegranate dipped in dark chocolate, I’m afraid. But the trend away from heavily processed foods is a positive one on the whole. Supporting small local farmers at city markets is better than pouring money into the bottomless pockets of agro-giants; whole grains are better than bleached flour; actual cheese has more valuable nutritional content than ‘cheese products’ that look like they belong in a Harry Potter spell more than a casserole recipe.
The problem comes in distinguishing between when processing a food is unnecessary, and when it’s extremely important. Taking an antibiotic because you have a cold or some other virus is a terrible idea, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the amoxicillin when you come down with strep throat. Let’s not throw the baby out with the processed bathwater — and the particular baby I want to save today is the one named ‘Pasteurization’.
Pasteurization is what happens to your milk in between the point when it leaves a cow and arrives in your mouth. It’s a process that involves heating a liquid up to destroy most of the harmful, disease-causing bacteria in it, and if you have at least a basic biology education, that probably sounds like a pretty good deal to you. Unless, of course, you are a raw milk advocate, in which case you probably have some thoughts about how the pasteurized cream in my morning coffee is slowly destroying me from the inside out.
Fans of raw milk can list all kinds of purported health benefits for the stuff, but the problem, as with so many arguments predicated on the degree to which something is “natural”, not many of these benefits stand up to much analysis. For example, raw milk is supposed to be safe for the lactose-intolerant, because pasteurization allegedly converts the milk sugars normally found in dairy into some mysterious and terrible alternate chemical form that the human body is unable to recognize. Spoilers: it does not do this. Drinking raw milk makes no difference in how lactose intolerant a person is, because lactose intolerance means the gene that lets you break down milk sugars stops working. Your genes do not care where you got the milk that you’re drinking. In fact, since lactose intolerance predates not only pasteurization but also written human history, it’s kind of hard to blame this one on modern preservation techniques.