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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.