Dear Umbra,

My husband was raised with milk straight from the cow that he milked himself every morning, so he and his parents are very into organic milk. However, I am concerned about the benefits/dangers of some of the milk they are giving to our toddler. Could you elaborate on the differences of non-homogenized vs. homogenized, non-pasteurized vs. pasteurized, and any issues/benefits of drinking milk that is from a local farm but does not follow FDA regulations? Meaning it can’t legally be sold to you because it doesn’t follow all of the processing regulations that are required for milk to be sold in stores.

Anonymous, to protect the peace of my home

Dearest Anonymous,

We discussed some of the potential benefits of keeping meat production near to home in a recent column, and home-grown milk holds similar possibilities for improving the footprint of our food production. But before we go further, dearest readers, let me point you to a new Grist column, Checkout Line. The inestimable Lou Bendrick has stepped up to help with your food-shopping-related questions. Please, go on and send your food questions her way — she is just as food-obsessed as I, and will fall upon them like a hungry lion.

Raw, raw, raw.

You are actually asking a health-related question, and a tricky one, but milk does have environmental impacts insofar as food choices influence how we use our lands. Your local farm may have good manure management practices, use few antibiotics, graze at the carrying capacity of land, and protect the water supply. The local supply chain certainly requires less refrigerated transport than a large dairy farm. On the environmental front, buying local milk is lovely. It also is probably helping the dairy farmer make ends meet.

The health question is less straightforward. I will give you some brief information, but ultimately the consumption decision must be yours.

Modern milk is a heavily processed product, in spite of its striking resemblance to an unprocessed food emitted directly from a cow. Bottled milk has been separated, remixed, pasteurized, usually homogenized, and fortified with vitamins before it reaches your local grocer. “Raw” milk, straight from the cow, is the only way to get around all of this processing, and this is apparently what your family is drinking. (This is not the same as organic milk, which must still be processed in order to appear on store shelves.)

Milk can harbor bacteria from the cow’s interior and also from the barn environs and the air. Listeria, E. coli, tuberculosis, and salmonella are a few of the infamous residents of milk. In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur’s idea of boiling foods to kill some but not all bacteria was a godsend to those eating dairy products. Under the pasteurization regime, milk-related diseases and deaths practically vanished, though they still occur. It was a public health victory, and pasteurization is now required by the USDA. (Homogenization is a process that breaks up fat globules — milk’s version of plastic surgery. Your non-homogenized milk probably has a cream layer on top, but that should raise no health concerns.)

Some people believe that raw, unpasteurized milk has more nutrients than pasteurized milk, and also falls into the (vague) category of a “living food,” which is somehow beneficial to eat. The nutrient claim is not supported by research. If you look on the internet, which I’m sure you have done, you’ll find that all the legitimate science is pro-pasteurization and all the raw milk proponents sound like zealots. Last year I asked the dairy farmer whose raw milk I was raised on what he thought about the whole debate. Though he of course drank raw milk from his cows, he likened it to knowingly risking your life, the way we do every time we step into a car. The big risk is Listeria, a potentially deadly bacteria. Listeria infections are rare (2,500 cases per year in the U.S., traced to a range of sources including deli meats and raw milk cheeses), but are a possibility. Were you told not to eat raw milk cheese when pregnant? That was to avoid a Listeria infection that could be fatal to the fetus.

I think you should do a little preliminary reading on the CDC website to get an idea of the issues involved with raw milk, and then calmly sit down with your husband and together decide what risks you want to take. As your advice columnist, I just want you to remember that children, fetuses, pregnant women, and ill persons are at higher risks from diseases. And don’t buy raw milk from a dairy unless you are certain of the dairy’s cleanliness, safety-consciousness, and refrigeration chain.

Lechely,
Umbra