Compared to regular dairy milk, what are the health benefits and risks?

You've added everything from traditional diary milk to alt milks, like oat and pea milk, to your morning latte, but what have you tried raw milk? It's popping up across the country everywhere from Instagram hashtags to retail markets, but what exactly is it, and, perhaps more importantly, should you try it? Here's what you need to know about raw milk.

Credit: Bryan Gardner

What Is Raw Milk?

Production wise, think of it as milk equivalent of natural wine. Minimally processed, raw milk is unpasteurized or homogenized milk that comes from cows, sheep, or goats.

A Quick Reminder About Pasteurization and Homogenization

The vast majority of the milk we drink in the U.S. undergoes pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization kills bacteria that can occur in milk through a process of heating up the milk and quickly cooling it. Homogenization breaks down the fat molecules in milk to prevent them from separating from the milk and forming a layer of cream.

Are There Any Other Differences Between Raw Milk and Conventional Milk?

Yes. For starters, raw milk tastes different to pasteurized, homogenized milk. There is also some debate over whether raw milk is nutritionally different from conventional diary and there are also risks to consuming raw milk.

What Does Raw Milk Taste Like?

Raw milk has a richer, creamier taste than the milk most of us are used to. And each raw milk can have a unique and distinct taste, a direct result of the cows that produce it. "The flavor of raw milk showcases really what the animal is eating which is mainly grass," says Jeremy Shapiro, creamery manager at Hawthorne Valley, a company that has been selling raw milk for decades. "You don't get that natural grassy flavor with conventional milk, and some people might not want that, but the first time I had raw milk it was like night and day in terms of taste and texture. Once you try it there is really no going back to conventional which tends to taste watery and bland."

Is It Nutritionally Different from Conventional Milk?

That depends who you ask. Most health professionals will tell you raw milk has a similar nutrient composition to pasteurized milk, but fans of milk—including more and more health-conscious consumers—tout its benefits. "Raw cow's milk contains around 12 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein per cup. Nutritionally, there is no benefit to drinking raw milk over pasteurized milk," says Natalie Allen a registered dietitian and an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University. Both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree stating "most of the nutritional benefits of drinking milk are available from pasteurized milk without the risk of disease that comes with drinking raw milk." However, the CDC also states that "heating process of pasteurization inactivates some enzymes in milk but scientists do not believe these enzymes are important in human health."

Raw milk fans, however, say the milk contains beneficial bacteria as well as amino acids, vitamins, and more that are missing from pasteurized milk. Some believe it may also lessen milk allergies, although there are conflicting studies behind that claim.

Are There Risks?

The FDA does not recommend the ingestion of raw milk and warns that consuming raw milk is done at your own risk. That's in part because the process of pasteurization kills bacteria such as E. coli and listeria that can be found in healthy cows. "The main health concern is ingestion of harmful bacteria, which can lead to food-borne illnesses. These illnesses can be quite severe, especially in children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals," Allen says. That's not to say that all raw milk contains E. coli or listeria, but if you're going to drink it you want to make sure you're buying it from a source you trust and a farm that knows how to produce it safely.

"My advice for someone looking to purchase raw milk is to go to the farm for a visit," says Amy Noteboom of Bellvale Farms Creamery, whose family has been in the dairy business for generations. "Things should look good. Your health is in the hands of this farmer." While Noteboom and her family drink raw milk at home, they don't sell it publicly. "While the future of producing milk is very uncertain, I don't think we will sell raw milk. There's just too many risks," she adds.

Where Can You Buy or Try Raw Milk?

This all depends on where you live. While most states permit customers to buy raw milk, it can often only be purchased directly from farmers. Ten states, including California, Connecticut, and South Carolina, allow for the sale of raw milk in retail stores. Check out this map to see what's available in your state.


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