Raw Milk: To drink or not to drink?

Some millennial parents believe that raw milk is a good dietary choice for their children. 

In my educated opinion, whole milk is certainly a healthy choice, for children and parents. But raw, unpasteurized milk? …. Ehh-nnn-ttt! (If you’re wondering, that’s my guess at how to spell the sound the wrong answer buzzer makes on a TV game show.) It’s what you hear before a contestant is sent off the set with a consolation prize, like a case of Rice-a-roni.

Researchers at UC-Davis in California agree with the game show judge’s call on this one. And they go even further in a study, in which they conclude that the natural bacteria in raw milk take on a generous dose of antimicrobial (antibiotic) resistant genes when the milk is left out of the fridge and allowed to warm to room temperature.

Their study recommends that if you’ve got raw milk — and a desire to drink it — you should keep it in your refrigerator until you’re ready to pour a glass. That will lessen the risk that you’ll end up chugging a load of bacteria with antibiotic-resistant genes — and passing that antibiotic resistance to yourself and anyone you share your milk with. The same goes for raw milk you use in a recipe or that comes in contact with other food, because antimicrobial-resistant genes that develop in raw milk can transfer to other bacteria-containing food in your kitchen.

When unpasteurized milk is not properly refrigerated, the antimicrobial-resistant genes that develop in the milk are transferred to anyone who drinks the milk or eats a recipe made with the milk. This leads to antibiotic-resistant organisms in anyone who consumes adulterated, room temperature unpasteurized milk. 

Is it any wonder that we have methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), antibiotic-resistant Strep, and a whole host of other antibiotic-resistant bugs? Most hospitals are plagued with MRSA and other equally deleterious pathogens in spite of all the precautions they take. 

Many people, including young parents, believe that unpasteurized milk is healthier for children because of claims by many foodies that raw milk contains healthy probiotics. While antibiotics kill infections, probiotics promote better health. Probiotics, which are found in yogurt and other fermented foods and dietary supplements, promote good bacteria to grow, to aid digestion, general nutrition and health. In fact, many of the microorganisms in probiotics are the same or similar to the good, health-promoting microorganisms that naturally live in your body.

However, in their commentary, the UC-Davis researchers expressed surprise over their findings regarding probiotics in raw milk. The unpasteurized milk they studied did contain probiotics, but in such small amounts that they provided little benefit. 

You’d be better off consuming active live culture yogurt, which do provide probiotics to promote good health. Yogurt is made by adding beneficial bacterial cultures that are known for their probiotic properties and benefits.

I must admit that unpasteurized milk has good attributes. For one, the taste. From drinking unprocessed milk from the cows on the farm where I grew up, I remember it tasting better than store-bought milk. Also, raw milk from small dairies typically has higher butterfat content — 4.0% or higher, compared to 3.25% in processed milk. 

But whatever good qualities it may have, raw milk must be pasteurized to prevent development of antibiotic-resistant genes that are easily transferred to other food and to the people who drink it.

I bet readers — other than those of my long shelf life — don’t know what clabber is. For you young’uns, it’s sour milk that thickens or curdles after being set out at room temperature. It’s sour-tasting and lumpy. I’ve jokingly told my students that drinking clabber is best accomplished by people who have a gap between their front incisors, to screen out like Michael Strahan of football and TV fame did so the lumps can be screened out. I know my tooth gap does the trick.

The UC-Davis researchers reported that some consumers intentionally leave their milk sitting out of the refrigerator to ferment and clabber. This practice, one of the co-authors said, likely adds a high concentration of antimicrobial-resistant genes to their digestive system.

Clabber may be healthy for you, if you inoculate it with yeast cultures similar to those used in baking bread. However, it is risky when raw milk is allowed to become warm without first being inoculated with an appropriate bacterial culture. 

Last month I wrote about the health benefits of drinking camel’s milk. Maybe I could get a “twofer” health benefit if I clabbered camel’s milk. But probably I’d be better off pouring that idea right down the drain.

For more on the UC Davis research, visit https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/raw-milk-may-do-more-harm-good

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  1. The UC Davis study was funded by the NIH and USDA, who are well known for their bias against raw milk.

    Given that they are ubiquitous in the environment, it is no surprise that there are antibiotic resistant genes in many foods. Breast milk, too, contains antibiotic resistant genes carried on bacteria found in the raw breast milk.

    The study found no pathogens in raw milk. This is further confirmation of the findings published in the January 2020 Journal of Epidemiology and Infection which concluded that “raw milk can be produced with a high level of hygiene and safety”.

    The government-funded study focused on antibiotic resistant genes which can proliferate in raw milk that is left at room temperature for hours. However, it is no surprise that raw milk, like breastmilk and many other foods, contains antibiotic resistant genes. The presence of antibiotic resistant genes is not an issue unless the balance of good bacteria in the gut gets disrupted. Both breastmilk and raw milk are known to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria. The study completely ignored the growing body of evidence that has shown that children who drink raw milk have decreased rates of asthma, allergies, eczema, ear infections, fever, and respiratory infections.

    The best way to beat antibiotic resistant bacteria is to protect and nourish the biodiverse bacteria in the gut. You can do this by avoiding antibiotics and processed foods, which damage the gut and immune system. Instead, eat plenty of whole foods such as raw milk, milk kefir, grassfed beef, eggs, and fresh or fermented vegetables and fruits to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut and allow it to thrive.

    References and more information about this topic are here: https://www.rawmilkinstitute.org/updates/antibiotic-resistant-genes-in-raw-milk

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