The world of food can get controversial at times, and a current debate regarding food is centered around the consumption of raw milk. In recent years, the demand for raw milk has significantly increased as the nutritional claims of unpasteurized dairy products fill articles, videos, and podcasts all across the Internet. So, what is pasteurization? Where did it come from, does it really make food safer, and is raw milk better for you? Here at Dr. Foodle we’re going to jump into this debate and see if we can find the truth about pasteurization.
Throughout human history, there wasn’t “raw” milk. Up until 1863, people just drank milk straight from the farm and didn’t give it much thought. That all changed when an ambitious French chemist, Louis Pasteur changed our way of understanding how food spoiled, but more importantly, how to prevent it from spoiling. Scientists before Pasteur had pioneered the germ theory, which was radical at the time. Prior to germ theory, it was believed that non-living things could produce living things through divine intervention; this was used to explain why milk soured or bread grew mold. Pasteur helped to prove the theory and change the conversation away from God and towards the presence of microorganisms. Through a series of experiments, Pasteur proved that microbes in the air contaminated food and caused it to spoil.
After proving his knowledge regarding the spoiling of food, Napoleon III went to Pasteur for help with a problem ailing French wine producers. As French wine became more popular around the world, many bottles of wine were going sour before reaching their destination. Wine was a point of pride for the French, and selling sour wine was a huge obstacle to overcome. Pasteur knew that boiling the wine would sterilize it of microbes, but it left the wine bland and tasteless. Pasteur then found that he could raise the temperature of the wine to 55 degrees and both preserve the taste as well as kill the microbes that caused it to sour. The French wine industry quickly adopted this technique, and soon after, dairy producers started to do it as well. The technique was coined as Pasteurization, and within a couple of decades, it became the norm for the dairy industry.
During the start of the 20th century, people pulled away from the farms and moved into the cities all across Europe and North America. As the cities swelled, so did the distances that food had to travel before being consumed. Milk was particularly problematic, as thousands of cases of foodborne illness relating to the consumption of milk were recorded. The governments of several countries during the 1940s and 1950s sought a way to make milk safer and outlawed the selling of unpasteurized milk. Cases of illness relating to milk consumption plummeted and the matter seemed solved.
In recent years, the conversation around pasteurization has kicked up again, but this time, it’s about people being able to access raw milk. Advocates of raw milk claim numerous benefits to the consumption of unpasteurized milk, from increased vitamin and mineral counts to antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties. An outdated study from the 1920s even claims that raw milk can be used to combat a variety of chronic illness including cancer. As the word about raw milk’s medicinal properties continues to spread, the pressure on various governments to change their laws has increased. But what’s the truth about raw milk? Can it really be used to fight chronic conditions and provide a ton of medicinal properties?
The short answer is no. Various recent studies have shown that the mineral count remains the same before and after pasteurization, while the change to the vitamin count is negligible. As for the presence of antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties, the exact opposite seems to be true. Raw milk is rife with more bacteria and about ⅓ of all the tested raw milk was contaminated with extremely harmful pathogens. The process of pasteurization was seen to be effective at removing the harmful pathogens while maintaining the nutritional content of milk.
Raw milk advocates claim that the source of the milk is key, with the unsanitary conditions found in mega-farming being responsible for the pathogens. However, various studies have confirmed that regardless of the milk’s source, unpasteurized milk on average contains a 30% higher chance of containing harmful pathogens, some of which can be fatal. After sifting through the history and data on pasteurization, it seems hard to recommend raw milk products. The greatest killer in human history has been foodborne illnesses, and it seems strange to reverse measures we’ve taken to combat these extremely harmful microbodies.