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Don't drink unpasteurized milk!

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  December 16, 2013 08:22 AM

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raw milk.jpgIn these days of alarming news about how food gets made and processed, as we hear about antibiotics and pesticides and hormones, I can understand how people might think that drinking raw milk is a good idea. If it's "raw", that must mean that it's more natural, free of anything bad and good for you, right?

Wrong. Big time.

Nutritionally, raw milk and pasteurized milk are the same. One is not better than the other when it comes to protein, calcium, milk sugars or anything else. But there is one important way that raw milk and pasteurized milk are different: raw milk can make you sick. 

Think about it. As the milk comes out of the udder, it touches the animal's skin. And while some barns are incredibly clean, well, it's not like cows (or goats) use toilets and wipe carefully. The milk comes into contact with the hands (or gloves or clothing) of the person milking, or the machine that does the milking, and it's unlikely that any of those are bacteria-free. It sits in containers that aren't bacteria-free either. Insects are known to hang out near animals, and sometimes they get into milk.

Even if you could make all that perfectly clean, or you could drink it straight from the (wiped clean) udder, it's possible that the milk itself could have germs. After all, milk is a bodily fluid; infections get passed into it. As with people, you can't always tell when an animal is sick--especially if it is early in an illness.

According to an article just published in the journal Pediatrics, between 1998 and 2009 consumption of raw milk or milk products in the United States resulted in 93 illness outbreaks, 1837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Most of these illnesses were from Escherichia Coli, Campylobacter or Salmonella bacteria.

That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends that pregnant women, infants and children not consume any raw or unpasteurized milk or milk products. (They can be dangerous for anyone of any age who has problems with their immune system, too). The AAP also endorses a ban on the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk or milk products throughout the United States.

Many states do have bans--but the majority don't. Here in Massachusetts raw milk can't be sold in stores, but it can be sold from farms. There are some regulations and requirements around storing and testing it, but none of the regulations and requirements can make the milk as safe as it would be if it were pasteurized.

When milk is pasteurized, it is heated up to at least 161 degrees for greater than 15 seconds, and then rapidly cooled. This goes a long way toward killing the dangerous germs that can get into milk. 

Some people argue that the good bacteria get killed along with the bad. That may be true--but it's really easy to get "good" bacteria into your system in other ways, like by eating yogurt with active cultures. You don't need to risk infection to get good bacteria.

As for the argument that drinking raw milk helps prevent allergies or asthma or autism, well, there's just no scientific data to show this to be true--and allergies, asthma and autism are things we have studied, and continue to study, very closely. 

I'm all for diets that are full of natural, unprocessed and organically grown foods (although you don't have to give your kids all organic foods--see my post from last year). But food safety is just as important. When it comes to dairy products, pasteurization is the way to go.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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