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The Battle Over Raw Milk: Let's Ditch the Hysterics and Give People a Choice

Few foods provoke such strong reactions (for and against it) as raw milk. Find out why.

Mention raw milk to some people, and you'll have to wait for them to stop yelling before you can have a conversation about it. Few foods provoke such strong reactions (for and against it) as raw milk.

Some people credit it with beneficial health effects, but others believe it's so risky it ought to be banned. The issue of raw milk -- milk that has not been pasteurized -- also raises a number of questions about our government's role in regulating foods when that is in conflict with individuals' freedom to choose foods that they consider important to their diets.

Those who drink raw milk go to great lengths to obtain it -- paying $5 to $10 per gallon for it -- sometimes even buying a share of a cow or regularly driving several hours to pick it up from a dairy.

They don't do this just because it tastes good. For some, it is a desire for natural, unprocessed foods. For others, it is part of a larger interest in sustainable agriculture and supporting farmers who use methods that help the environment.

For many, it is about the health benefits derived from probiotics, enzymes and nutrients that are destroyed during pasteurization. Few studies have been done in the U.S. on the health benefits of raw milk, either to prove or disprove them. However, the health benefits of breast milk are well known, as Scientific American reported, and breast milk is raw milk. Recently, European studies have shown that raw milk provides a protective effect against children developing asthma or allergies.

Aside from scientific evidence, raw-milk drinkers point to numerous anecdotal benefits. In a survey of milk drinkers in the state of Michigan, over 80 percent of those advised by a health care professional that they were lactose intolerant were able to consume raw milk without problem. Individuals have written testimonials crediting raw milk with alleviating their allergies, asthma, Crohn's disease, other digestive problems, osteopenia, failure to thrive in infants and boosting their immune systems so that they do not suffer from colds and the flu as they did before consuming raw milk.

There are even reports of improvement in autistic children, such as one mother who attributes to raw milk her son's ability to attend regular school instead of special education. The boy lived in his own world up until the age of 7, when his mother changed his diet, including the addition of raw milk. A high-schooler today, he can drive, and he plans to attend college.

Ultimately, the scientific evidence is not conclusive, and the anecdotal stories are just that -- individual reports that may be attributed to other factors.

The benefits of raw milk have not been scientifically proved or disproved. In order to understand all of the facts, scientific studies should be conducted to verify which of the reported health benefits of raw milk are accurate.

If raw milk might be an overlooked superfood, then why is there such controversy?

Regulators point to the risk of consuming a raw animal product. The basic facts about raw-milk safety are the same as any other food. If raw milk is not contaminated by microbial pathogens, it is safe to drink. If it is contaminated, then the microbe can sicken anyone who drinks the milk. Contamination can come from bovine diseases, or manure or dirt that is brought into contact with the milk by insects or humans.

Most raw-milk drinkers take care in choosing the sources of their milk and choose farmers who take steps to reduce the risks (for example, by careful sanitation of their equipment). In contrast, milk that is intended for pasteurization is typically produced in large, confinement dairies that can fall back on the knowledge that any bugs in the milk will be killed during pasteurization.

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