So I’m now officially a college scholar. Yay me. And while I am obviously excited for this next chapter in my life (I get to work with dead bodies in kinesiology class!), there is one thing I have quickly noticed that I am not too fond of: college food sucks.
Now, this is not something that’s specific to Penn State. And yes, I go to Penn State. Don’t bother with the Sandusky jokes–I’ve heard them all. Anyway, this is a complaint I’ve heard from most of my friends who are in college, and those that don’t complain about it generally eat like shit anyway. Sadly, there’s nothing that can really be done about this until I am able to move off campus and acquire my own kitchen. But one can dream, no?
However, there is an upside to going to school in State College, PA. And no, it has nothing to do with parties, alcohol, or scantily-clad females. Not that those things aren’t nice. Just kidding mom! Moving on, the thing that I’m overjoyed about is that every Friday, there is a farmer’s market directly across the street from my dorm. Now, you’re probably thinking, “What’s so special about that? I’ve been to a farmer’s market before.” You’d be right, except for this is Pennsylvania, and there is no law in this state against selling or purchasing raw milk.
Whaaa?!? I’ll take a moment to let that settle in. Good? Too bad, we’re moving on. Here are some of the comments I’ve received on this (mostly from my mom):
-”That’s gross; you’re going to get sick!”
-”What’s the point; why can’t you just drink regular milk?”
Woah, how did that last one slip in there? Beats me. Anyway, yes I have been purchasing and consuming raw milk. And yes, I am still alive. Most people kind of shrug this topic off because, as I mentioned in my previous article, they really don’t know much about it. They just know that basically all milk is pasteurized and that’s the way it’s always been for them, so it must be wrong to do anything else. Now, I’m not denying that consuming raw milk increases your risk of foodborne illness, because it does. But what I will contend is that this risk is way too far overblown, and there are actually numerous benefits to drinking raw milk that, depending on the person, could outweigh any risk they might encounter. Now, on to the real content.
For those of you who don’t even really know what raw milk is, it’s literally just milk that has not gone through the pasteurization process. And for those of you who don’t know what the pasteurization process is, that’s when producers heat the milk to extremely high temperatures (typically anywhere from 160 to 275 degrees Celsius, depending on the duration of time under heat) to kill any bacteria or microbes that may be present. This, in turn, reduces the chances of food-born illness. So all is well and good in the world, right?
Well, as per usual, there’s more to the story. There’s three main components to the debate over raw vs. pasteurized: 1) the risk of illness, 2) the nutritional benefits, and 3) personal considerations. Let’s tackle number one first, and I’ll get to the others in subsequent posts. Here are three headlines I pulled from an article by Chris Kresser who, along with nutrition guru Brian St. Pierre, I get most of my information from regarding raw milk (for those of you who are unfamiliar with Chris, he’s a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner in integrative medicine–basically he’s really big on finding ways to help the body heal itself rather than use chemicals or invasive procedures):
“Raw Milk Causes Most Illnesses From Dairy, Study Finds.”
- USA Today
“CDC: Raw Milk Much More Likely to Cause Illness.”
- Food Safety News
“Raw Milk is a Raw Deal, CDC Says.”
Wow. Not exactly a rave review. Chris Kresser goes into pretty good detail in breaking down these studies, although I’m not sure I agree with everything he has to say. He points out that among documented cases of food-born illness, dairy is at the bottom of the list as a cause, behind meats, poultry, eggs, produce, and seafood. In fact, it comprises only 1.3% of total food-born illness cases per year. I’m not sure you can hang your hat on this, though, because the vast majority of people who consume dairy consume pasteurized dairy. From a purely unbiased point of view, if all of the people who consumed dairy did so only when it was raw, that number might be significantly higher.
He also mentions, however, that cases of illness caused by dairy are much more mild in comparison with other foods–for example, there has not been a documented death caused by contaminated raw milk in over 25 years, even though an estimated 10+ million people per year consume raw milk regularly. Ten million people is a pretty decent sample size, in my opinion.
A couple other issues he has with the CDC studies: 1) an estimated 99% of actual food-born illness cases go unreported, so these claims by the CDC could be seriously skewed. I would contend, however, that they could potentially be skewed in either direction–in favor of or evidence against raw milk consumption. 2) they lumped Queso Fresco “bathtub” cheese in with raw milk (since raw milk is one of the ingredients), but this food is illegally made and inherently more dangerous than raw milk. Based on his own assessment of the data between 2000 and 2007, Chris concludes that you had about a 1 in 94,000 chance of contracting a disease from raw milk or dairy (I looked at the data as well, his calculations on this one actually seem pretty legit). By comparison, you had a 1 in 888,000 chance of becoming ill if you drink pasteurized milk. True, pasteurized dairy may seem like it’s way safer, and that’s because it is. But one must understand the difference between absolute and relative risk–a 1 in 94,000 chance is 0.001%. For perspective: your odds of getting in a car accident? 1 in 8,000.
Taking an even closer look, Chris analyzed the frequency of hospitalizations (to illustrate the point that “illness” could just mean a simple case of diarrhea, which we all deal with every now and then). Drawing from the same data, he concluded that there was a 1 in 6,000,000 chance of being hospitalized due to raw milk consumption. For perspective: your odds of dying in a plane crash? 1 in 2,000,000. He goes on to compare the risk to other foods:
-1.5 times greater risk of becoming ill from eating shellfish than consuming raw dairy
-1 in 88,000 chance of dying from raw oyster consumption compared to 1 in 94,000 chance of just becoming ill from consuming raw dairy
Brian St. Pierre also makes a great point in saying that when pasteurization was invented, the quality of food production was horrendous, by today’s standards. It was a process that was sorely needed. Nowadays, however, with technology and greater knowledge and awareness, it is much less of a concern. Of course, this varies from producer to producer, but I’ll be getting to that at a later time.
Okay, so here’s my take: Chris does a pretty good job of trying to frame that the risk of getting sick from raw milk is seriously overblown. While I disagree with some of the evidence he uses and points that he makes, I agree with that assessment. I believe that if you choose a responsible, transparent, experienced vendor, the risk of getting sick from raw milk nowadays is relatively low. That being said, I’m not going to recommend anything until I get through with the other two segments, so you’ll have to sit tight!