Dr. Robert Cook - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Robert Cook

Is Raw Milk Bad For You?

Also Known As: Unpasteurized milk



Short answer

Raw milk contains more natural enzymes, probiotics, and certain nutrients than pasteurized milk. However, it also presents a high risk of pathogen and bacterial contamination, making pasteurized milk a safer option for most individuals. While raw milk might offer some benefits, they are overshadowed by the health risks. It's crucial to weigh the potential nutritional advantages against the significant safety concerns associated with consuming raw milk.



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Long answer

Nutritional Profile of Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk

When comparing raw milk to pasteurized milk, it's important to understand the impact of the pasteurization process on the inherent nutrients found in milk. Pasteurization is a process that involves heating milk to a specific temperature for a set period to destroy potentially harmful pathogens. However, this process can also have implications on the nutritional components of milk.

Raw milk, which is milk from cows, goats, sheep, or other animals that has not been pasteurized, is often cited as being more natural and containing more bioavailable nutrients. Proponents of raw milk claim that it contains more beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and nutrients than its pasteurized counterpart. Here's a closer look at the differences in nutrient profiles:

  • Enzymes: Raw milk contains natural enzymes that may help in the digestion of lactose and the absorption of various nutrients. Pasteurization inactivates many of these enzymes, which can be particularly significant for individuals with lactose intolerance.
  • Probiotics: The beneficial bacteria found in raw milk can act as probiotics, contributing to gut health. These bacteria are typically eliminated during pasteurization.
  • Vitamins: Certain vitamins, such as vitamin C and some of the B vitamins, are heat-sensitive and may be reduced during pasteurization. However, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are largely unaffected.
  • Minerals: The mineral content in milk, including calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, remains fairly stable during pasteurization, though some studies suggest that the bioavailability of these minerals may decrease.
  • Fats: The fats in milk are not significantly impacted by pasteurization. However, the process can affect the structure of fat globules, altering their physical properties.
  • Proteins: While the quantity of proteins like casein and whey remains consistent, pasteurization can denature some milk proteins, potentially affecting their digestibility and allergenicity.

Despite these purported differences, much of the nutritional value of milk is retained through pasteurization. The pasteurization process is designed to balance the safety benefits of eliminating pathogens while minimizing nutrient loss. In fact, some pasteurized milk is fortified with vitamins A and D, which can actually enhance its nutritional profile compared to raw milk.

It is crucial to note that scientific studies have yielded mixed results regarding the significance of the nutritional differences between raw and pasteurized milk. A study published in the "Journal of Food Protection" indicates minimal nutritional differences between the two, while anecdotal evidence from raw milk enthusiasts often highlights perceived health benefits. Health professionals generally recommend pasteurized milk as the safer option due to the risk of bacterial contamination in raw milk.

Therefore, while raw milk may offer a different nutrient profile that includes enzymes and probiotics not found in pasteurized milk, the potential health benefits need to be weighed against the safety risks. Those considering raw milk should be informed about these risks and should source their milk from reputable farms with stringent safety practices.

Risks of Pathogens and Bacterial Contamination in Raw Milk

One of the primary concerns with consuming raw milk is the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria and pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses. Unlike pasteurized milk, which has been heated to kill bacteria, raw milk can harbor dangerous organisms such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has documented numerous outbreaks of illness related to raw milk and raw milk products. Between 1993 and 2012, the consumption of raw milk and cheese accounted for nearly 1,000 illnesses in the United States. These raw milk-related episodes have led to hospitalizations and, in some severe cases, long-term health consequences or death.

Young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk for severe infections from raw milk. These demographics are advised to avoid it altogether due to their higher susceptibility to infection and complications.

Here are some of the pathogens commonly found in raw milk:

  • Salmonella - Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting and can lead to more severe illnesses like bacteremia.
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli) - Certain strains of E. coli are pathogenic and can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting. The infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure.
  • Listeria monocytogenes - This bacteria can cause listeriosis, a serious infection that's particularly dangerous during pregnancy and can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe illness in newborns.
  • Brucella - Responsible for brucellosis, which can manifest as fevers, joint pain, and fatigue, and may evolve into more persistent health issues.
  • Campylobacter - A leading cause of bacterial diarrheal illness in the United States, which can sometimes lead to complications such as Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • Mycobacterium bovis - A less common pathogen that can cause a form of tuberculosis transmissible to humans through raw milk.

The FDA and other health organizations strongly recommend pasteurization as a critical step to ensure the safety of milk for consumer consumption. Pasteurization not only extends the shelf life of milk products but also ensures that the majority of harmful bacteria are eliminated.

Individuals who choose to drink raw milk should be fully aware of the potential health risks. Those who still prefer raw milk should obtain it from credible sources that adhere to the highest standards of hygiene and have their herds regularly tested for diseases. Even with these precautions, the risk of contamination cannot be entirely negated.

Raw Milk and the Immune System: Myths and Facts

When discussing raw milk's impact on the immune system, it's essential to differentiate between established evidence and common myths. Here, we'll delve into some of the claims regarding raw milk and immune health, and what science has to say about them.

Myth: Raw milk can replace vaccines

Some proponents of raw milk suggest that it can function as a natural vaccine, boosting the immune system to a point where additional vaccinations are not necessary. This is a dangerous misconception. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccines are specifically designed to protect against certain diseases without causing the illness. Raw milk, however, lacks this specificity and cannot mimic the protective effects of vaccines.

Fact: Raw milk contains immunoglobulins

Raw milk contains immunoglobulins (antibodies) that some believe can benefit the immune system. While these antibodies are present in breast milk and confer some immune protection to human infants, there is limited evidence to suggest that the immunoglobulins in cow's raw milk provide significant immune support to humans post-weaning. A peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Food Protection found that while raw milk does contain immunoglobulins, their impact if any, on the human immune system is not yet fully understood.

Myth: Raw milk is a probiotic

A common claim is that raw milk operates as a probiotic, containing beneficial bacteria that support gut health and, by extension, the immune system. However, the definition of probiotics, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), requires that they are "live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host." Not all bacteria in raw milk are beneficial, and without pasteurization, it's not guaranteed that the bacteria are safe or confer health benefits.

Fact: Potential exposure to harmful pathogens

Pasteurization was introduced to prevent milk-borne illnesses caused by pathogens that can thrive in raw milk, such as E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. These pathogens can be particularly harmful, even life-threatening, especially to the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems. The immune system can be truly compromised after exposure to these harmful bacteria, contrary to the claims that raw milk strengthens immune function.

Myth: Raw milk can cure asthma and allergies

Certain circles advocate the consumption of raw milk as a cure for conditions like asthma and allergies, suggesting it can modulate and strengthen the immune system. However, this claim is not supported by large-scale, replicated scientific research. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises against giving raw milk to children, highlighting the risk of serious infections rather than therapeutic effects.

Fact: Associations are not causations

While some small-scale studies and anecdotal evidence have hinted at a link between raw milk consumption and reduced incidence of allergies and asthma, large, randomized controlled trials are lacking. Such associations should not be misconstrued as causative evidence. It's crucial to consider other factors such as genetic predisposition and environmental exposure before attributing immune benefits solely to raw milk.

In conclusion, while raw milk can contain elements potentially beneficial to the immune system, the risks and lack of scientific consensus must be carefully considered. Myths surrounding raw milk should be weighed against established facts and scientific evidence to make informed decisions about consumption and its effects on your immune health.

Potential Allergenicity and Lactose Intolerance Issues

Lactose intolerance and milk allergies are two distinct conditions affecting a significant portion of the population. Both can cause discomfort and undesired health concerns when consuming milk products, but the implications with raw milk can be particularly distinct.

Lactose intolerance is a common condition where the body lacks the enzyme lactase, which is necessary to digest lactose—the sugar found in milk. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include bloating, gas, diarrhea, and stomach cramps after consuming lactose-containing foods. The processing of milk can affect lactose levels; for example, the fermentation process in products like yogurt and cheese can reduce lactose content. Raw milk, however, remains unaltered, potentially retaining its full lactose content, thereby posing a risk for those with lactose intolerance.

On the other hand, milk allergies are an immunological response to milk proteins, primarily casein and whey. It is one of the most common food allergies in children, though adults can be affected too. The symptoms of a milk allergy can vary greatly, from hives and digestive issues to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Unlike lactose intolerance, the allergenicity is related to the protein content, not the lactose, and therefore, both pasteurized and raw milk contain these allergens.

Some proponents of raw milk claim that it can be easier to digest and may reduce allergic reactions compared to pasteurized milk. However, these claims are largely anecdotal, and scientific evidence is lacking. A review in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that early exposure to farm milk might be inversely associated with the development of asthma and allergies. Still, the evidence does not distinguish the impact of raw versus pasteurized milk in people with established allergies or intolerance.

It's crucial for individuals with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy to consider the risks of consuming raw milk. With raw milk being untreated, it contains the natural levels of lactose, and there is no reduction in allergenic proteins, which can exacerbate symptoms in sensitive individuals. Moreover, the absence of pasteurization does not eliminate or reduce the potential for allergic reactions, and for some individuals, it may pose a heightened risk due to the unaltered protein structures.

Those with lactose intolerance or milk allergy who wish to consume milk products should consult with a healthcare provider. There are lactose-free and dairy alternative options available that may be more suitable. Furthermore, special attention should be paid to the sourcing and handling of any raw milk products to minimize the risk of adverse reactions or additional health concerns.

For those considering raw milk in their diet, a careful assessment of personal tolerance levels and monitoring for any adverse reactions is essential. Nutritional counseling or medical advice may be necessary to ensure that the choice of including raw milk does not compromise one's health.

Legal Status and Quality Control of Raw Milk Sales

The sale and distribution of raw milk, which is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria, is a topic of heated debate and varied regulations across different jurisdictions. The legal status of raw milk can have significant implications on its safety and quality control mechanisms. Before diving into the intricacies of raw milk sales, it's critical to understand the patchwork of laws that govern it.

In the United States, the legality of selling raw milk is primarily determined at the state level. Some states permit the sale of raw milk for human consumption at farms, farmers' markets, retail stores, or through herd-share agreements, while others completely prohibit its sale. For instance, states like Pennsylvania and Maine allow sales in retail stores, subject to licensing and regular inspections, whereas in states such as Hawaii and Iowa, the sale of raw milk is entirely illegal. Federal law also comes into play, banning the sale of raw milk across state lines.

The varying legal landscape reflects differing opinions on the balance between consumer freedom and public health. Proponents of raw milk argue for the right to make informed food choices and often stand firm in their belief of raw milk's purported health benefits. On the opposite end, public health officials point to the risks associated with raw milk consumption, particularly the possibility of contracting foodborne illnesses due to pathogens like E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.

In regions where the sale of raw milk is legal, quality control standards are put in place to mitigate health risks. These may include:

  • Testing Requirements: Many states impose rigorous testing of raw milk for bacterial counts, coliforms, and pathogens. Regular testing helps ensure that the milk remains within safety thresholds.
  • Licensing: Raw milk producers are often required to obtain a license or permit, verifying that they abide by specific production and hygiene standards.
  • Inspections: Regular inspections by state or local authorities may be mandated to check for compliance with sanitation, animal health, and milk handling protocols.
  • Labeling: Clear labeling informing consumers that the milk is unpasteurized is typically mandated, allowing individuals to make an informed choice.

Philosophies and practices surrounding raw milk are varied and the debate is ongoing. In Europe, for instance, vending machines that dispense raw milk are popular in some countries, benefiting from strict regulations and frequent quality checks. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) monitors and provides scientific advice on raw milk, although regulatory powers remain with individual countries. Contrasting approaches to raw milk highlight the balance that regulators attempt to strike between individual choice and public health concerns.

In conclusion, while consuming raw milk comes with certain risks, the legal provision for its sale in some regions—with accompanying quality control standards—aims to reduce these risks. However, it remains essential for consumers to be fully aware of the potential dangers and to keep informed about the legal status of raw milk in their locality.

Frequently asked questions

Drinking raw milk always carries some risk of bacterial contamination. However, sourcing milk from reputable farms with stringent safety and testing protocols can reduce, but not completely eliminate, the risk. Always ensure such farms test their herds regularly and maintain the highest hygiene standards.

No, pasteurization does not remove all beneficial components from milk. While it does inactivate many enzymes and eliminate beneficial bacteria, the process retains the majority of milk's nutritional value, including its mineral content and fat-soluble vitamins. Additionally, some pasteurized milk is fortified with vitamins A and D.

While raw milk does contain immunoglobulins similar to those found in human breast milk, the significance of raw animal milk's immunoglobulins for the human immune system, particularly after infancy, is not well supported by current scientific evidence. Breast milk's composition is uniquely tailored to infants and contains numerous other immune and growth factors critical for a baby's development that are not present in cow's raw milk.

Yes, some consumers report a difference in taste between raw and pasteurized milk. Raw milk enthusiasts often describe it as having a richer, creamier flavor, which can vary depending on the diet of the cows and the farm's practices. Pasteurization may slightly alter the taste, making it less robust due to the heat treatment.

Ask a question about Raw Milk and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • digestive discomfort
  • allergic reactions
  • foodborne illness

Possible long-term side effects

  • kidney failure from hus
  • chronic health issues from brucellosis
  • guillain-barre syndrome
  • severe infections

Ingredients to be aware of

  • pathogens (e. coli, salmonella, listeria)
  • allergens (casein, whey)
  • lactose


  • beneficial enzymes
  • probiotic qualities
  • contains immunoglobulins

Healthier alternatives

  • pasteurized milk
  • lactose-free products
  • dairy alternatives
  • fortified plant-based milks

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Organic Valley Milk

  • USDA Organic certified
  • Non-homogenized whole milk
  • Rich in nutrients
  • No antibiotics used
  • Pasteurized for safety
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 01-24-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 01-24-2024

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