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organic living journey raw vs pasteurized milk

The following is part of an ORGANIC JOURNEY GUEST POST SERIES, written by Amy a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.

I have dreaded doing research on dairy for many reasons. One, it is ridiculously controversial with opinions ranging from all dairy is evil to eat anything you want.  The kicker is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus of opinion (I like things black and white!)  Two, to make changes in this area is super expensive, especially if you consume as much dairy as my family does.  Finally, there is just so much stinkin’ lingo in the dairy world.  Pastured and pasteurized, organic and raw, it’s a whole new language to learn.  As much as I hestitate to dive in, it is the next logical baby step for my family.  So here we go!

Before I can figure out how to save money in this area, I need to decide what kind of dairy products we are going to be buying.  What baby step are we taking here?  A big trend that I keep hearing about is raw milk.  I have friends who absolutely love their farm fresh milk, and my homeopathic doctor actually recommended that if I am going to eat dairy products that I get them raw when possible.  However, I have also read articles from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and heard warnings from my pediatrician that all raw milk is evil and that if I buy it, I most certainly am exposing my family to a great health hazard.  So what is the difference between pasteurized and raw milk and why all the controversy?

The process of pasteurization is where raw milk (milk taken straight from the cow) is heated up for a certain amount of time in order to kill disease causing germs (aka bad bacteria).  There are three different methods of pasteurization in use right now.

Important Milk Lingo

HTST stands for High Temperature, Short Time.  The milk is heated to between 160-165º F for about 15-30 seconds.  When you are purchasing milk, the label will read Pasteurized.  The shelf life on this kind of milk is 2-3 weeks.

UHT stands for Ultra-high temperature.  This milk is heated to 275º F for around 1-2 seconds.  This is your Ultra-Pasteurized milk which has a shelf life for MONTHS.  (Ever noticed those organic milk boxes that don’t have to be refrigerated?  Yep, those have been ultra-pasteurized.)

Low-Heat Pasteurization heats milk to about 145º F and keeps it there for about 30 minutes before immediately chilling.  The milk I currently buy is this kind, and it is labeled Vat Pasteurized.  Proponents of this method of pasteurization say that is the best of both worlds. The harmful bacteria are destroyed while most of the enzymes are left intact.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

The benefit of pasteurization is pretty obvious, you eliminate bad bacteria.  Some reports indicate that 90% of harmful bacteria is eliminated by pasteurization.  Proponents of pasteurization say that the nutritional content of milk is not negatively affected in any way by pasteurization.  However, even companies, like Organic Valley, that pasteurize milk will admit that “Both the UHT and HTST pasteurization processes reduce enzymes in the milk.”  So that’s one admitted drawback.

Raw milk fans will give you a long list of benefits.  Raw milk has not been denatured.  It is full of good bacteria and enzymes.  People that are lactose intolerant claim that they can drink raw milk without any negative side effects.  Others with asthma and allergies claim a noticeable difference when they imbibe in raw milk.  Not to mention that most of these folks think that ultra-pasteurized milk is a completely dead food.  Nothing good left in it at all.  So why aren’t we all drinking raw milk?

Well, the CDC has some pretty strong warnings against it in its article Food Safety and Raw Milk:
“However, milk and products made from milk (including certain cheeses, ice cream, and yogurt) are foods that, when consumed raw, can pose severe health risks.  Milk and products made from milk need minimal processing, called pasteurization, which can be done by heating the milk briefly (for example heating it to 161 °F for about 20 seconds), to kill disease-causing germs (e.g., Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157, Campylobacter) that can be found in raw milk.”

And CNN listed raw milk in the top three foods to avoid saying:
Fans of raw milk (meaning milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized) credit it with having more beneficial bacteria and enzymes than its processed counterpart, but science hasn’t proven any of these claims. And raw milk can become contaminated in a number of ways: by coming into contact with cow feces or bacteria living on the skin of cows, from an infection of the cow’s udder, or from dirty equipment, among others.

The special heating process we know as pasteurization is the only effective way of killing most, if not all, harmful bacteria — which can include listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.
According to the CDC, there were 86 reported food poisoning outbreaks from raw milk between 1998 and 2008, resulting in 1,676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations, and two deaths.  Raw milk is responsible for nearly three times more hospitalizations than any other foodborne disease outbreak, says Hannah Gould, Ph.D., senior epidemiologist with the CDC’s Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch. It’s no wonder selling raw milk to consumers is illegal in about half of U.S. states. “We have two people, in California and Pennsylvania, who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome [which can cause paralysis and respiratory failure] after contracting a bacterial infection called campylobacteriosis from drinking raw milk,” says John Sheehan, head of dairy safety at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “These were healthy, active people who came down with debilitating, lifelong diseases.”

After I perused the negative information about raw milk (including emotionally charged videos of families who had consumed bad raw milk and had their lives severely impacted), I felt like if I dared to give my family raw milk, then I must be callous, unfeeling, and just plain dumb.  The longer I thought about it all, it felt like fear tactics.  Which made me wonder what the statistics actually said.

The numbers, though, are interesting.  The study that CNN quoted, listed 121 outbreaks related to dairy intake from known sources of pasteurization from 1993-2006.  Yes 73 cases involved nonpasteurized products–which is 60% of those cases.  Not a home run of evidence, in my opinion because that means the other 48 cases, 40% of the whole was from pasteurized dairy! Isn’t that interesting?  Nobody ever talks about the risks of consuming pasteurized milk.

What everyone will agree on is this: cows are dirty animals and they do not have the capacity to clean themselves.  Their environment is key.  The filthier the environment, the filthier the cow will be, and thus the easier it is for pathogens to be transferred to the milk.  Therefore, the practices of the farm distributing raw milk are vital to making sure you get healthy and not harmful milk.  Let me say it again, because it is important.  If you decide to buy raw milk, you need to know where it is coming from and how they operate.  Pasteurization is a necessity on industrialized farms because of the way that they run shop.  A necessity and a good thing.

Since the real reason people want their milk pasteurized is to avoid illness, I was curious to see how the outbreaks in the past compared to other food-related illnesses.  We read all the time about peanut butter being contaminated and recalls of spinach or cantaloupe, and it is interesting that no one recommends that we quit eating peanut butter or spinach.  Yes, we will remove the contaminated source, but then we go right on eating these products again, exposing ourselves to the same risks.  So why the extreme controversy over raw milk?  I don’t have an answer to that question, but I found this statistic interesting:
“Based on data in a 2003 USDA/FDA report: Compared to raw milk there are 515 times more illnesses from L-mono due to deli meats and 29 times more illness from L-mono due to pasteurized milk. On a PER-SERVING BASIS, deli meats were TEN times more likely than raw milk to cause illness (Intrepretive Summary – Listeria Monocytogenes Risk Assessment, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Sept. 2003, page 17).”  From Weston A. Price Fresh, Unprocessed (Raw) Whole Milk: Safety, Health and Economic Issues

In many states it is illegal to sell raw milk (for example, it is illegal in Georgia to sell raw milk except for pet consumption).  You can check here to find out what the laws are in your state. Also, raw cheese is legally sold in the US as long as it has been aged for at least 60 days.  That amount of time allows the bad bacteria to all die off so that pasteurization is not necessary.

Whew, are you tired yet?  I know it is alot of information.  (I have been wading through it for days!)  Now do you see why I avoided this stuff? There isn’t a clear cut winner in this debate at least not for me, and I am not about to tell you what your family should consume.  The CDC is quite clear on their recommendations and the raw milk camp is pretty firm in their beliefs as well.  For many of you, even if you wanted to drink raw milk, you don’t have access to it which is why in the next few weeks, we are going to talk about what you find in your grocery store.  Is organic milk really worth the extra money?  What’s the difference between pastured and regular? We’re going to look at what exactly rBST  is and so much more.

Now, I know all of this is highly polarizing, and I know that many of you have done lots of research and have your own opinions that you hold closely.  Can we remember to be kind to one another in what we share here?  Give others the benefit of the doubt and remember we are all trying to do our best.  Remember that these are people we are talking to, not just screen names.

    • organic mama

      Great research! My local Earth Fare sells a milk from a local dairy that is non-homogenized but pasteurized at a low temperature instead of the high temp flash pasteurizing. They are grass fed cows and my family loves it and can tell the difference when I get a regular gallon of milk from the store.

      • amysanders

        i so want an earth fare. :)

      • Jenn B

        What’s the brand?, I live near Huntsville, AL and shop at Earthfare a lot. Just today, I got $103 worth of food for only $45, which included 5lbs organic chicken breasts and 2lbs grass fed organic beef.

    • Stephanie

      Thank you for this research Amy! We have been trying to figure this out for our family too. So far we’ve switched to organic milk, but not raw. So many conflicting facts (an opinions) out there. I will be looking forward to your next article!

      • amysanders

        it is hard, isn’t it? in all honestly, the issue isn’t completely settled in my mind either.

    • mom2jsandq

      Nicely written, thank you! We drink raw milk from a “tried-and-true” supplier and we’ve toured their facility. It’s pet milk, as we are here in GA :)

      • amysanders

        do you mind sharing where you get your pet milk?

        • Two places I know of in GA that sell pet milk are Carlton Farms, in Rockmart. They make deliveries all around Atlanta. And then there is Rancho Alegre farm in Dacula.

    • TheChapLeigh

      Amy – I appreciate how you exposed the statistics upon further investigation. “The Untold Story of Milk” is another great resource to read up on the industrialization of the dairy industry. Industrialization of our foods has necessitated cleaner milking, storing & transporting practices. I also like your comment regarding “the fear factor”. We need to prayerfully consider our decisions and be led in peace with all things. How I choose to milk my own clean cow eating foods she’s meant to eat (this CANNOT be emphasized enough), with my own clean hands, into my own clean container, into my own clean kitchen will give me much greater peace than all those steps in the process being entrusted to others. But not everyone has that option :)

      • amysanders

        again, i need you to be my neighbor!

    • brite

      I second “The Untold Story of Milk” book, although it is a TON of information and a bit tedious. But if you want to know, it’s all there. We have our own family cow, and drink raw milk, make cheese and butter, and make our own yogurt. I wouldn’t drink pasteurized milk, due to the risks, now that I’ve researched it. Thanks for your look into this subject!

    • Karsten

      We are vegans so we don’t consume dairy at all, but for many years we drank raw dairy. If we ever were to add dairy back into our diet it would only be raw. If you look at the standard dairy industry and the unhealthy practices they follow you can understand why the CDC recommends homogenizing and pasteurizing dairy. Who wants to drink raw milk coming from an udder that is crusted with feces or from a cow that is consuming grain and has a much higher percentage of E. coli! That is what is happening at conventional dairies (and chicken houses). Cows aren’t eating an all grass diet and they aren’t being moved daily to fresh pasture to stay healthy and clean…that’s the kind of cow you want to drink milk from. Get to know your farmer that you are buying your milk and cheeses from. Visit the farm, ask about how the cows are fed, are they moved daily, are they vaccinated (sure sign of a sick herd), etc. There are a lot of great documentaries on farming/health/food.

      • amysanders

        after i wrote this, i watched food, inc. further cementing my belief that pasteurization on industrialized farms is GOOD.

    • LindaAnne

      Wow! You are so brave! = ) Thanks for wading into all of this!! We have switched to some organic products over time. I would be okay with all organic however the jury is still out for the rest of my family. And there is so much to learn… Thanks again for the time and thought you have invested in these articles.

      • amysanders

        thanks for your kind words. :)

    • Jenni P.

      I think this is the most balanced, non-pushy article I’ve ever read on this subject. Well done! We prefer raw milk in our home, and got it from a local certified and licensed to sell dairy. Sadly, they had to shut down for reasons completely unrelated to their product, but we now found Happy Cow Creamery in the Upstate of SC, and they do low-heat pasteurization. Their milk and butter is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. We can’t afford to always buy it, but when we can, we do! We do drink the regular stuff from Rite Aid (Coburg, lately), because I get 20% off of it thanks to my store discount. There absolutely is a difference in taste. It’s the same with honey – pasteurized honey is something I’ve never liked my whole life. I got to try some raw wildflower honey, and the flavor as amazingly better. I use it all the time now. As long as you know WHO you are getting your food from, and what their practices are, it’s worth the money, IMO.

      • katkoupon

        I LOVE Happy Cow Creamery! I buy their butter from a farmer who resells their products in Myrtle Beach. I had to stop buying their chocolate milk because it was SO good I couldn’t limit myself! I did drink (and love) their low-pasteurized milk until I found local raw milk. Middle Sparrow Ranch (from Timmonsville) sells raw milk at Bay Naturals in MB.

      • amysanders

        thanks! and yeah, knowing your source is key, isn’t it?

      • Jacque

        We buy our raw milk in the Upstate of SC from Milky Way Farm. Mr. Peeler sells to a few stores throughout the Upstate and Lowcountry but you also can pick up milk every two weeks from a few different drop points. http://www.scmilkywayfarm.com

    • Leah

      Great post! We drink organic milk, but I have yet to find a good source for vat pasteurized or raw milk around here. If anyone knows of a source in Central Florida, please post!

    • Carrie Timme

      About 4 years ago after having my second daughter she was unable to keep down breast milk. I was told it could be the dairy she was intolerant to. So hesitantly, I decided to eliminate dairy from my diet and with in 2 days of being dairy free she had no more vomiting spells. After about a month I made the connection that I too am intolerant to dairy, my skin cleared, belly settled. I have been drinking almond milk since and am completely dairy free. I do miss cheese but I do not miss the cystic acne!

      • amysanders

        i wonder what would happen if you tried raw? (no pressure, promise! just a curiosity question.)

    • Rebecca Lucianno

      awesome article, very well written with tons of information. thanks!

      • amysanders

        you are welcome!

    • Lisa

      Another great article, Amy. I, too, decided a few months back to explore the difference between common dairy, organic dairy, and raw dairy. It was eye opening. I figured out a few years ago that my sinus allergies were much better avoiding dairy all together, but I missed all the yummy stuff, so I thought maybe organic or raw might agree with me better. With conventional dairy, I was also concerned with the added hormones in the animal feed to increase milk production and antibiotics to fight all the bad stuff going around from over-crowding, among other things. Even though the dairy packaging might say “no added hormones or antibiotics,” all that means is that those things are not added to the milk, which is illegal, but in many cases they are still added to the feed the animals eat, which ends up in the final product. Scary thought! The ultra-pasteurized organic dairy did still bother my allergies, but now that I found a small local source for raw dairy, I have been able to consume dairy once again, with minimal side effects. It tastes so much better, too! Based on my personal experience, as long as you can trust your local supplier to run a clean shop, go raw. I think much of the anti-raw hype is exaggerated scare tactics by the bigger dairy companies. They can maximize their profits by pushing the limits of operating in a clean environment by heating and adding antibiotics to everything to kill the bad stuff, and unfortunately much of the good stuff in the process. Not a good trade off when the consumers are the ones getting the negative side-effects.

      • amysanders

        well said!

    • sundrop474

      I always have to smile at the “raw” debate. I grew up in rural TN, and we had cows, among other livestock. We milked them and drank their milk, “raw”. I don’t ever recall anyone becoming ill although, as a nurse, I know that certainly could have happened. And, just so know one thinks I have one foot in the grave, I am 38 years old. It wasn’t that long ago that people knew where their food came from.

    • Robert Brown

      We also buy raw “pet milk” ; ) in Georgia. We have bought from the same farmer for 6 years. It comes straight from the cow, no heating at all. We have never so much as had a cold, flu, or virus since starting it. We use it to make our own kefir, yogurt, cream cheese, whey, cream, butter, and ice cream. For us, there is definitely no turning back. We are SOLD!

    • Michelle

      Thank you for this article, it’s great info to have….been wondering about the hype on raw milk. Now I got the scope, thanks

    • Katrina the Poorganic

      I think you did a FABULOUS job on your research and presentation. This is something I’ve tiptoed around a bit on my blog. We’ve tried ALL the various kind of milk, but I finally came to the conclusion that what is “better” has to be better for mental and physical health. Here’s a funny story of our dairy journey. http://www.thepoorganiclife.com/when-better-for-you-isnt-better

    • Sasha

      Thanks for your article. I switched to organic milk when I was pregnant with my first child. I new about the ultra pasteurized, but not the low-pasteurized. I don’t think I’ve seen that in Virginia. I try to buy the regularly pasteurized organic milk more than the ultra pasteurized. There’s also a brand at Kroger that is not organic certified, but from my understanding they follow the practices. It is in glass bottles and comes from Virginia. I make yogurt from it or buy Stonyfield organic yogurt. Most of our cheese comes from an Amish farm in Ohio. Organic dairy is much more expensive, but I think worth it.

    • lj

      I don’t have a problem with raw milk. But i have a hard time with digesting it. I currently buy 2% or skim, because the higher the fat content, the worse i feel. My sister also has a hard time digesting it. She would get upset stomach every time. I dont believe it had anything to do with the farm. It was the same way when we visited my uncles small dairy farm too. And they were extremely particular about their cows and milk.

    • Hope

      Wow! I really enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for all of the good, un-biased information and research, can’t wait to see your next post on the organic milk!

    • Lisa

      I was just thinking that one major difference not mentioned in your article between pasteurized milk and raw milk is the fact that raw milk doesn’t go “bad” like most of us are familiar with regular milk. Raw milk just goes sour, but you can still safely consume it. It is wonderful in pancakes, waffles, biscuits, breads, etc. With the tail ends of raw cream I have left over at the end of the week, I encourage them to sour more so I have sour cream, or even butter. (easy to make in a blender… google it) With the raw milk, allow it to stand on the counter for 24-48 hours with the lid loosely on to allow air to escape during fermentation. Once the milk has clabbored, when the curds and whey begin to separate, add a little natural sea salt, strain into a cheese cloth, and allow to drip on the faucet till firm, then refrigerate. You have now made farmers cheese! Without salt it tastes similar to ricotta, with salt, closer to a cross between ricotta and goat cheese. Great mixed with cream cheese, too. My Grandmother used to make this before pasteurization even existed. Instead of being scared of every bacteria under the sun, with overuse of anti-bacteria everything, maybe we should learn from the past and embrace good bacteria and allow it to work for us. Good bacteria and enzymes are far too few in today’s food sources. They are a critical part of our digestive system allowing us to keep a healthy balance to be able to fight off infection and to be able to digest our food properly.

      • TheChapLeigh

        Lisa makes a great point here. I use my milk to make yogurt, butter, buttermilk, sour cream, cream cheese, and mozarella & ricotta. I’m soon to try cheddar, which will take care of the “block vs. shredded” discussion previously, LOL! In order to utilize that awesome milk & not let any go to waste, many a day is spent in my kitchen, making up cornbread, muffins, waffles (which I then freeze) & pancakes… but if I should let it go “too far” and am behind the power-curve, it’s nice to know that I can let it clabber and the chickens will DEVOUR it! LOVE farm life, nothing goes to waste!! I will have to try the farmer’s cheese, though, that’s a new one to me.
        I also agree about enzymes & probiotics that are necessary in our digestive systems. They are lacking severely, due to (my opinions here) the “dead food” our culture has been consuming, as well as prolific use of antibiotics killing off the healthy stuff within us. Raw & cultured dairy helps to replenish — that has been my entire famiy’s experience and I could share more testimony about that if I had the time.
        I’d love you as a neighbor, Amy! I think some folks in my circle consider us a bit wierd… but then again, because of our lifestyle shift, 4 of them are now into the raw-milk, locally-purchased persuasion now ;)

        • amysanders

          i feel the same way about composting! now, if something spoils, i don’t feel nearly as bad knowing that it is just going to make my soil richer. ha!
          and this thinking is countercultural (aka weird!) because we are a culture that generally thinks first about price and convenience. i do think that is shifting and people are starting to see the effects of our not worrying about what we eat, and thus people begin to change. from personal experience, chronic and worsening sickness is a great motivator for change.

      • amysanders

        why doesn’t pasteurized milk “go sour”? not doubting you, just wanting to understand the whys behind it. :)

        • Lisa

          I am not an expert by any means, but from what I understand, the good bacteria and enzymes have been killed off during the pasteurization process, so instead of a natural fermentation process occurring like you would get in raw dairy, or even in making such things as kim chi or sauerkraut, you get spoilage where the bad bacteria win the battle over the good guys and it becomes unfit for consumption. I’m sure you could probably get a more scientific explanation if you researched it, but that is my understanding in layman’s terms. :o)

          • amysanders

            i’m all for layman’s terms. thanks!

    • Mommyloni

      I went crazy researching this topic a few months ago. I finally decided I would buy Organic milk (instead of raw, I was just too nervous). I was lucky to find an AWESOME creamery nearby that sells their own organic low-temp pasteurized milk from grass-fed cows. It’s pricey but my kids are young and I feel it’s important for their development. They noticed a difference in taste right away from the “yummy milk in the glass bottles”. I’m in Chambersburg, PA and the store is called Trickling Springs Creamery. They’re awesome!

    • mommyloni

      I went crazy researching this topic a few months ago. I have younger kids and wanted the best for them. I finally settled on buying low-pasteurized organic milk from grass fed cows, at a local creamery. I researched them well and feel comfortable with my decision. They are pricey for the milk but I feel it’s worth it. My kids loved the “yummy milk in the glass bottles” right away. I trust the creamery more than the “organic” milk in the grocery store. They’re called Trickling Springs Creamery and I’m in Chambersburg, PA.

    • TNSara

      Excellent article – I can tell you why states are leary about passing the raw milk laws. Not everyone that purchases raw milk has educated themselves on the pros and cons of raw vs conventional milk and knows that there are a few risks of becoming sick. It only takes one person to get sick from unpasteurized milk and sue a dairy – putting them out of business. The states/legislatures get pressure from the dairy associations to keep the laws for their protection. That being said – I’m a fan of having as many purchasing options as possible – there’s a market for everyone – but the small, local producers who do sell raw milk need to be protected from legal action just in case someone does ingest bacteria. I’ve seen subclinical mastits in cows from exceptionally clean dairies (it does happen occasionally) and have isolated E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Strep strains from milk. Subclinical cases of mastitis are hard to catch and while most reputable dairies practice excellent sanitation, there is always a chance it can happen! (I have a M.S. in dairy mastitis genetics and ran hundreds of raw milk samples in microbiology labs). I’m all for raw milk, but we also have to protect those that sell it!!!!

      • amysanders

        thanks for the information! i hadn’t heard about that aspect.

    • Angelas001

      I’m so glad to see this on SS- sometimes I feel it’s contradictory that I spend so much time on here to save every little penny on food and then turn around and pay $6 a gallon for raw milk every Saturday. But then- really SS helps me save on what I can so that I CAN spend the extra on the well-worth-it raw milk.

      Driving co-ops are a great option if you find a source but it’s not convenient- share the drive with someone else! I run a raw milk driving co-op to get “pet milk” from an Amish farm because it’s an hour and half from Nashville, but with 15 in our group now I only have to make that long drive once every 15 weeks. Our group delivers to south Nashville and has an opening if anyone’s looking for a source!