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Leslie Beck: What do you need to know about raw milk

An increasing number of Canadians want to know where their food comes from and how it's produced. And that's a good thing.

Concerns about food quality, health and nutrition, the environment and local economics drive many people to seek out locally produced, unprocessed foods at grocery stores and farmer's markets.

One food that's gaining awareness again is raw (unpasteurized) milk. Advocates claim it's healthier, easier to digest and safer than pasteurized milk.

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The problem for raw-milk enthusiasts, however, is that its sale is strictly prohibited in Canada. It's a law that, in August, thousands of Canadians petitioned Health Canada to change.

South of the border, 13 states allow the sale of raw milk in retail stores, 17 states allow it to be sold only on the farm it was produced and eight others permit it to be obtained through "cow share" agreements, according to ProCon.org, a U.S. non-profit research centre. Raw milk is also allowed for sale in many European countries. (In a cow-share or herd-share agreement, consumers pay a farmer a fee to board, care for and milk their cow. The cow-share owner then obtains, but does not purchase, the milk from his own cow.)

If you've wondered what raw milk is, and whether it's better for you than regular milk, here's what you need to know.

Raw versus pasteurized milk

Raw milk is the milk that comes from cows (or goats and sheep) that has not been pasteurized, a process that quickly heats milk to a high temperature to kill pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7, campylobacter, salmonella and listeria monocytogenes, microbes that can cause serious and life-threatening illness. Raw milk is typically produced by local farmers who raise cows on pasture (e.g., grass).

In 1991, raw milk was officially banned for sale under Canada's Food and Drug Regulations due to concerns over food-borne illness. In Canada, milk must be pasteurized, including milk used to make yogurt and cheese. (Some raw cheeses are legal to sell in Canada.)

Bacteria can get into raw milk from cow feces, infection in the cow's udder, bacteria that live on the animal skin, processing equipment and cross contamination from people.

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Pasteurization does not sterilize milk; rather, it reduces the number of harmful bacteria so they are unlikely to cause disease (provided, of course, the pasteurized milk is handled and stored properly).

Does raw milk have health benefits that pasteurized milk doesn't?

Advocates claim that drinking raw milk can cure or improve symptoms for conditions such as childhood allergies, autism, attention-deficit disorder and colitis, claims mostly based on anecdotes and testimonials.

Scientists have, however, studied the link between raw-milk consumption by young children and allergic conditions. While the research is observational (e.g., it does not prove causation), it has revealed a reduced risk of asthma and eczema among rural children and infants who drank raw "farm" milk. But it's possible that the protective effect may be due to something other than raw milk.

Even so, researchers warn that the risk of food-borne illness from raw milk outweighs its potential benefit as a food to prevent allergies in children.

Does pasteurization destroy nutrients in milk? Is raw milk more nutritious?

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Pasteurization has been shown to decrease the content of some minerals in milk such as iron, copper and manganese, but not significantly. High heat can destroy a fair bit of vitamin C, but even raw milk isn't a good source of the nutrient.

Both types of milk are equally good sources of protein, B vitamins, calcium and zinc.

Evidence does suggest, though, that raw milk from grass-fed cows is higher in an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha linoleic acid (ALA) than conventional milk produced from grain-fed cattle. It's also considerably higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid tied to protection from cancer and heart disease.

But this has to do with the animal's diet, not the fact that the milk is unpasteurized. Pasteurized grass-fed milk also contains much more ALA and CLA than conventionally produced milk.

Is raw milk easier to digest?

Many people who are lactose intolerant claim they can drink raw milk without digestive upset. (Lactose intolerance is the inability to properly digest and absorb lactose, the natural sugar found in milk.)

Yet, a 2014 randomized controlled study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found no difference in digestibility between raw and pasteurized milk among lactose-intolerant individuals. However, the study was small (16 people) and lasted only three weeks.

Raw-milk producers contend the milk contains beneficial or probiotic bacteria that secrete lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. Scientists argue that raw milk, like pasteurized milk, does not contain lactase or probiotic bacteria.

Still, it is possible there are qualities about raw milk that make it easier to digest that have yet to be determined.

Is raw milk safer today than it was when milk pasteurization began?

In the 1930s, when milk pasteurization became common due to concerns of contaminated milk, an advanced temperature-controlled supply chain didn't exist for storing and transporting milk. Better refrigeration, sanitation and distribution practices should reduce the opportunity for raw milk to become contaminated; however, they won't eliminate it.

Bottom line

It's possible that in the future, the government will decide to give consumers the right to choose raw milk and ensure controlled systems are in place to help maintain its safety.

While the debate continues, Health Canada and many medical organizations strongly discourage consumers from drinking raw milk. Its purported benefits, which are unclear and largely undocumented, do not outweigh its microbial hazards.

The risk of getting sick is greater for infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

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