Once upon a time, milk was not such a complex or controversial subject.

Cows grazed on green grass. Healthy, well-fed, and free to roam, they produced a nutrient-dense, thick, white liquid which was relished either straight from the cow (raw) or turned into cultured dairy for short-term storage or delectable hard cheeses for long-term storage.

It was neither heated to death at ultra-high temperatures, nor were its fat molecules shaken until they shattered into minuscule pieces. It was not demonized as a health hazard, declared to be bacterially unsafe, and the cream was a valuable commodity, considered a boon for raising chubby and rosy cheeked toddlers that grew into sturdy young men and women.

Today, we see a very different picture. Not only is whole milk condemned as fattening, mucus-producing and artery-clogging, but it is not even legal to purchase raw milk in most parts of North America. What happened in a mere 200 years that this amazing, nourishing food has become chagrined and so misunderstood?

The History of Milk

“And the Lord said, I am coming down to deliver my people out of the hands of the Egyptians and unto a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:8

From the earliest archaeological records, humans have consumed milk. Nomadic people groups followed their herds as they sought fresh, green pastures for grazing. Herds like cattle and goats were clearly prized in biblical times, and milk or milk products are mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible, usually in reference to extraordinary fertility, provision and rich blessings from the Lord. Ancient Greek and Roman records demonstrate the value of cows, and the extensive use of milk. Hippocrates recommended milk and butter for health. Cattle were extremely valuable to the early settlers of North America, saving the early colonies from starvation and becoming a source of wealth for the average family.

This is just the briefest of snapshots of the role of milk in history. I used the book “The Untold Story of Milk” by Ron Schmid, ND as my reference. It is a fascinating read, and very eye-opening.

Image by jimmyharris

Oh, the Opposition

All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
Arthur Schopenhauer

When I read this quote in The Untold Story of Milk, I just had to nod my head in complete agreement. Weren’t the Wright brothers ridiculed and scorned in their early attempts to create a flying machine, as naysayers declared it could never be done, and others that humans were never meant to fly in the first place? And yet, nothing is more commonplace today than to take a plane to get where you need to go.

Or what about Dr. Semmelweis, the brilliant Austrian physician who realized that women were dying in droves after giving birth, because their doctors were not washing their hands between performing autopsies and delivering babies. It was 1847, prior to the understanding of germs and their transmission, and despite the fact that he brought the mortality rate from 10-35% down to an astonishing 1% through handwashing practices, his teachings were rejected, he was dismissed from medical practice, and his ideas were not accepted until Louis Pasteur’s germ theory after Semmelweiss’ death.

For reasons too extensive for the purposes of this post, raw milk has been thoroughly ridiculed and is now moving into a stage of violent opposition. In the Canadian province of British Columbia (where I live), raw milk farmers are under intense pressure to cease and desist, with raw milk raids and expensive court cases, and we are certainly not the only place experiencing such opposition to the raw milk movement.

My goal in writing this post was actually to address more of the benefits and the safety of raw milk, not to get started on a rant (oops!), and yet it’s nearly impossible for me to ignore these issues when I talk raw milk. The reason? Much of the negative talk that you hear about milk, and raw milk in particular, is simply fraught with the tensions that exist in modern agriculture, between smaller, family-run and sustainable farms and large-scale corporate agriculture, with its focus on profitability and marketability. So little of it is actually about consumer safety and health, but rather about protecting the massive “dairy industry cartel” (not my term, but I like it) and its profits. I can only hope that we will soon reach the third stage, where the benefits of raw milk become self-evident, and the right to purchase it becomes freely available to all.

Image by kthread

What’s So Great About Raw Milk?

But I digress… let’s discuss why this is a traditional food par excellence.

I’m going to use the 6 main benefits stated on the Campaign for Real Milk website as a foundation, because I think they sum it up well, and then I’ll give you a few brief thoughts of my own and some links to learn more details about each benefit.

1. Real milk comes from cows that eat real food.

Cows are ruminants and they were made to eat grass. It’s a simple as that. That’s what their stomachs digest with ease, that’s what keeps them strong and robust, that’s what allows them to pump out disease-free milk that is rich in vital nutrients. Healthier cows means no need for antibiotics, and raw milk (or any organic milk) farmers do not use hormones to artificially boost milk production. And have you ever compared grass-fed butter to regular store butter? The difference in color is vibrant– my grass-fed butter is a gorgeous yellow, bursting with nutritional goodness.

Other reads: “Cows Eat Grass” and Other Inflammatory Statements, What About Grass-Fed Beef? (on the reasons cows should be pastured)

2. Real milk is not pasteurized.

Milk contains naturally occurring enzymes, as do all raw foods. These God-given enzymes are intended to aid in the digestion of the food. It is crucial that our diets contain a good portion of raw foods chock full of enzymes, because this puts less strain on our bodies to provide digestive enzymes, and diminished enzyme stores can lead to illness and early aging.

Pasteurization also greatly reduces nutrient content in milk, messes with its fragile protein structure, and (very importantly) kills beneficial bacteria and allows other pathogens and harmful bacteria to flourish in the milk.

Other reads: Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk, Abstracts on the Effects of Pasteurization on the Nutritional Value of Milk.

3. Real milk is not homogenized.

Homogenization is an unnecessary process introduced so that rather than old-fashioned style cream-top milk, we have milk where the butterfat globues are broken down and mixed evenly throughout. This seems harmless at first glance, but our body cannot assimilate the fat properly, and treats these molecules as foreign invaders, which may or may not contribute to atherosclerosis (thickening of the artery walls), and quite likely does contribute to food allergies and milk sensitivities.

Other reads: Milk Homogenization and Heart Disease

4. Real milk contains butterfat and lots of it!

We’ve just talked about why I think that you should eat plenty of real, traditional fats, and that includes whole-fat raw dairy. Butterfat from cows that graze on grass is high in vitamin A and D and K2 in particular, which are extremely important for numerous things including the assimilation of calcium, of protein, for hormone balance, and for a strong immune system (to name a few). It is also rich in short and medium-chain fatty acids, as well as CLA (congugated linoleic acid), with more immune system boosting and heart-healthy qualities.

Other reads: Vitamin A Vagary, How Important is Vitamin D? (although this doesn’t sufficiently answer where to get more vitamin D, which I would argue that in the winter, we can get what we need from cod liver oil, and raw butter and cheese that were made with spring/summer grass-fed milk).

5.  Real milk products contain no additives.

Some dairies add powdered skim milk to 1% or 2% milk, and more commonly to other dairy products like sour cream and yogurt. Powdered skim milk is a controversial topic, because many (but not all) believe it to contain harmful oxidized cholesterol (I haven’t researched this one enough yet, but when they’re tampering with milk at ultra-high temperatures, that’s enough to make me avoid it regardless). Additionally, to help make up for the loss of natural vitamin A and D through pasteurization, or the lack of it due to nutritionally-deficient diets for cows that never see the light of day, synthetic vitamins are added to most milks and milk products.

Other reads: The Real Story of Homogenized Milk, Powdered Milk, Skim Milk and Oxidized Cholesterol, and Natural vs. Synthetic Vitamins (I haven’t had time to read through this article with a fine tooth comb, but upon a quick read it seems to bring up a lot of the questions and issues in the natural vs. synthetic vitamin topic).

6. Real milk can save family farms.

If we want to protect our right to enjoy real and traditional foods, then we need to support the small family farms that are producing them. Enough said.

Other reads: Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defence Fund

Image by muffet

Other excellent raw milk resources:

Is Raw Milk Really Safe?

How to Find Local Sources of Raw Milk

A Campaign for Real Milk

Why I Choose Raw Milk

Raw Milk: Discussing Its Merits and Its Safety

VIDEO- Baby, I Like It Raw with Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures dairy (note that I don’t necessarily recommend anything else on this website other than this particular video interview)

VIDEO- Raw Milk Ninja (another Mark McAfee video, but this one isn’t an interview)

The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated: The History, Politics and Science of Nature’s Perfect Food: Raw Milk from Pasture-Fed Cows (a fascinating book!)

Do you drink raw milk? Why or why not?

Top image by kthread