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Moo juice

(article, Sona Pai)

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I’m not much of a milk drinker. I rarely drink it by the glass, but I try to be mindful of what I put in my cereal or my coffee. I buy organic, I buy as local as possible, and I feel good about my choices. Early this fall, however, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. And I started thinking about milk a little differently.

As anyone who has ever been pregnant can confirm, the realization that you are now not one but two comes with a mixture of joy and anxiety, as well as an inundation of information. Specifically, you learn right away about what you should consume (whole grains, leafy green vegetables, plenty of dairy) and what you shouldn’t (sushi, deli meat, unpasteurized milk and cheese).

Cursed with both an aversion to being told I can’t do something and an inclination to become over-informed, I read everything I could about why I shouldn’t eat or drink the items on the “no” list. I also stocked up on milk, half and half, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Macatack" caption="What kind of milk do you drink?"]

Most of what I read about the “no” list made sense to me. Even though I’m always careful about what I eat and where it comes from, I decided I could do without sushi for nine months to avoid the risk of parasites. And I could skip the turkey sandwiches to avoid salmonella or listeria contamination. These bacteria can cause a few days of discomfort for me, but they can be far more dangerous (and even deadly) to my developing child. 

However, when I read about unpasteurized dairy products — also known as “raw” dairy products — I got confused. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other public-health organizations categorically caution everyone, not just expectant moms, against consuming unpasteurized milk and anything made from it because of the risk of contamination by such harmful bacteria as salmonella, listeria, E. coli, campylobacter, and brucella. Almost every news item I read quoted FDA official John Sheehan saying that drinking unpasteurized milk is “like playing Russian roulette with your health.”

Sounds straightforward enough, right? 

It’s not. 

h3. The raw believers

I also found a wealth of information touting the benefits of drinking raw milk. Raw-milk drinkers talk about their choice with the enthusiasm of the devout. They adore its richer, creamier taste and describe it as a sort of miracle elixir with a unique cocktail of proteins, fats, nutrients, and beneficial bacteria that are vital to human health and that suffer the same fate as harmful bacteria in the pasteurization process. 

They believe that raw milk cured their asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, blurred vision, and a host of other ailments. Many also point to evidence that milk in its natural state contains “good” microorganisms that actually keep troublesome pathogens in check.

Although the sale of raw milk is illegal in some states and heavily restricted in most, raw-milk drinkers have ways of getting it. They can buy it directly by going to a farm. They can get it indirectly, through underground milk clubs. In some states, they can legally purchase bottles of raw milk so long as it's sold with a label stating “for pet consumption only.” Or they can acquire it through cow-sharing arrangements, in which consumers chip in for the care and maintenance of a farmer’s herd and enjoy the milk as a perk of ownership.

No matter how they get it, raw-milk enthusiasts emphasize that the important thing is knowing where it comes from. The perfect source of raw milk? A farm where the cows are pastured, raised on grass or hay instead of corn, never given hormones, and kept by a farmer trusted to keep every bit of the operation meticulously clean.

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Go organic?

Even ordinary milk these days is frequently labeled "rBST-free" or "rBGH-free," meaning that the cows involved weren't given bovine growth hormone. But that doesn't mean, as the New York Times recently pointed out, that the milk is free of antibiotics or pesticides. Organic milk is far less chemical, but 
even organic dairies have been known to curdle the rules.

]]

Advocates assert that raw milk is vastly superior to its commercially processed and pasteurized counterpart. They believe drinking raw milk is one of the best things you can do for your health, and they believe this just as fervently as public-health advocates believe it’s one of the most dangerous choices you can make.

When one person’s panacea is another’s poison, what’s a mother-to-be — or any conscientious milk drinker — to do? 

h3. Is a glass of raw milk half bad or all good?

In 1912, the epidemiologist Milton Joseph Rosenau published a series of lectures under the title The Milk Question. At the time, most Americans drank milk in its raw state, straight from the farm. As more Americans moved to cities, milk had to travel farther from cow to cup, and that gave dangerous bacteria more time to grow and thrive. Rising infant mortality and outbreaks of disease (such as tuberculosis and typhoid) attributed to milk consumption presented public-health officials with the troublesome “milk question”: How could Americans get wholesome milk without being subjected to the dangers of the bacteria it could contain?

Rosenau saw milk as “the most difficult standard food item to gather, handle, transport, and deliver in a fresh, clean, safe, and satisfactory manner.” He noted that nutrient-rich milk provided an ideal medium for harmful bacteria. Milk posed a particularly significant problem, he said, because it affected every aspect of American life, from individual health to the national economy, and because of its role as a primary source of nutrition for vulnerable infants and children. 

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Cheese, raw 

Because cheese is essentially preserved milk, it's considered safer by public-health authorities than fresh milk. But the FDA has banned the sale of raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days, and may be considering banning the sale of raw-milk cheese altogether. Since many traditional cheeses — especially soft ones — rely on raw milk for their flavors, the possibility of a ban has many cheese lovers worried. 

Slow Food USA has created a presidium to protect the production of American raw-milk cheeses. In the New Yorker in 2002, Burkhard Bilger documented the raw-milk cheese movement in the U.S. And Salon has covered the raw-milk cheese underground.

]]

“The milk problem starts with the cradle and ends with the grave,” he said. “Sometimes, it leads to an untimely grave.” Rosenau’s answer to the milk question? Pasteurization.

The process of heating a substance to a high temperature to kill undesirable bacteria and then cooling it had been developed in the mid-1800s by the French chemist Louis Pasteur. In the 1920s, it became widespread in America as a means of ensuring a safe milk supply to meet a rapidly growing demand. As an added commercial benefit, pasteurization extended milk’s shelf life, which Rosenau noted was shorter than that of fresh fruit.

About a decade later, in the 1930s, a Cleveland dentist named Weston A. Price began to suspect that the dental problems he saw every day were signs of broader health problems and, more specifically, poor nutrition. Price inspired the Weston A. Price Foundation, an outspoken raw-milk advocacy group, and his story sounds like the stuff of legend. 

As the story goes, Price traveled around the world in search of isolated societies, or “primitives,” who ate only unprocessed foods in order to examine their teeth and bolster his nutritional theories. Among communities in the Swiss Alps, Eskimos in Alaska, Polynesians, Australian Aborigines, the Maori in New Zealand, and indigenous tribes in North and South America, he apparently found straight teeth, few cavities, and a high resistance to disease. 

Price then analyzed the foods these communities ate and found them to be up to 10 times higher in valuable nutrients than refined, processed foods. He returned to the U.S. and published his findings in the book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration; he became an outspoken advocate for a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods and unpasteurized milk.

As the decades passed, the milk question gave rise to two very different answers. For public-health officials, it seemed like a no-brainer: Pasteurized milk significantly reduced the risk of bacteria that caused illness, so milk intended for human consumption ought to be pasteurized. For natural-health and whole-food activists, the answer seemed just as simple: Milk is most healthful in its pure, unadulterated form, and consumers ought to be able to buy it that way.

In much of the country, pasteurization won. In 1987, the FDA banned the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk. The sale of unpasteurized cheese (see sidebar) has also been banned, unless it’s been aged for at least 60 days. 

h3. The choice is ours

Raw-milk drinkers represent a relatively small group of consumers; the New York Times guesstimates "perhaps hundreds of thousands" nationwide. But as frequent food recalls send more people in search of more natural-food choices, demand for unpasteurized milk continues to rise. 

This increase in demand, coupled with recent, isolated outbreaks of illnesses associated with raw milk in Washington, Pennsylvania, and California, have led to crackdowns against raw-milk-dealing farmers in some states; the state of California, for example, recently passed a law banning the sale of raw milk after January 2008. 

Media stories about raw milk range widely; some are sympathetic to the raw-milk cause, while others paint raw-milk enthusiasts as a fringe group of “lacto-fermentation scofflaws.” And some present both sides, but give the last word to public-health officials.

As a consumer who seeks out minimally processed foods whenever possible, the arguments of raw-milk supporters make sense to me. I understand food writer Nina Planck’s reasons for drinking raw milk during her pregnancy, but I’m not ready to take the leap and buy shares of a cow. I am, however, thinking more about the milk I do buy, where it comes from, and what happens to it between the farm and my table.

As an expectant mother who’s become hyper-aware of the pros and cons of everything that goes into my mouth, I understand the public-health concerns about milk. But I can’t help thinking: What if we put the same amount of money and energy into ensuring that all_ milk is clean and safe from the time it leaves the cow? 

If I do decide to take the plunge into raw milk, I know where I can get the stuff. But in my child’s lifetime, I hope that we’ll stop treating fresh, clean, unprocessed milk as contraband.

p(bio). Sona Pai is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Her baby is due in April.

Also on Culinate: A cheese primer, a guide to storing cheese, and a look at organic milk.


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