Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Raw Milk: Healthy or Hopeless?

As some of my intrepid readers will recall, a few weeks ago I went to visit a raw milk dairy in Pennsylvania, The Family Cow. It was quite interesting, to say the least, and I was impressed enough with their safety procedures that I purchased a half gallon of milk to try on my own.

One of the bits of the tour that most struck me was how fervently Roderick, the fifth generation farmer who gave me the tour, believes in the curative powers of raw milk. Indeed, this is something that has grabbed my attention whenever I have come across raw milk drinkers - they believe in the healthfulness, and indeed, in the "superfood" stature of raw milk, with a fervor bordering on religious faith.

But me, I am a skeptic in almost all things, and I was determined to find out what, if any, scientific basis these health claims have.

To that end, I picked up a little pamphlet at The Family Cow on the benefits of, as it proclaims, "Fresh Unprocessed RAW MILK - A Nutrient-Rich Whole Food," in the hopes that it would give me a bit of insight.

Based on the research of a dentist named Weston A. Price in the 1930's, the brochure's central thesis is as follows: "Mammalian raw milk is a complex, bioactive substance of time-tested ancestral origin, where all parts work together to create a nourishing and protective food." The chief argument here is that raw milk contains enzymes and micro-organisms that are destroyed during pasteurization, making milk more difficult to digest and removing all the health benefits they provide.

At first glance, the brochure has all the earmarks of a legitimate publication. It has prominent quotations from doctors and professors on the cover, and cites studies and books, including pictures from Dr. Price's 1939 tome Nutrition and Degeneration, which is essentially the Bible of the raw milk movement. "1939?" you might be thinking. "Isn't that kind of a long time ago?" Indeed it is. And as I look more closely at the quotations on the front cover, I see that they date from 1928 and 1929, respectively. The points are not stacking up in favor of the raw milk folks.

But let's move on to what health benefits, exactly, raw milk is supposed to provide. The brochure provides an exhaustive list, which leaves no stone unturned. Raw milk, it says, treats high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart failure, infection, urinary tract infections, prostate gland swelling, psoriasis, toxic thyroid disease, gastric ulcers, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, pulmonary tuberculosis, edema, stiff joints, muscular dystrophy, and worms, and prevents dental decay. In fact, in one case of raw milk therapy that they cite, raw milk was successful in treating a "large group of patients for which no specific disease could be found."

And let's not forget the various anecdotal evidence I have heard from drinkers of raw milk, including my tour guide at The Family Cow, who claimed that drinking raw milk prevented colds, staved off allergies, boosts general immunity, and in the case of one farm worker who receives dialysis, even helps with kidney problems.

All that, eh? At this point, I begin thinking rather uncharitably of snake oil salesmen.

I'm not trying to argue that raw milk has no benefits whatsoever, but I am inclined to continue to view these health claims with further skepticism until  I can delve into some research a tad bit more recent than 1939.

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