Ask Gerda: Is Raw Dairy Healthy for You?

Ask Gerda: Is Raw Dairy Healthy for You?

Ask Gerda: Is Raw Dairy Healthy for You?

gerda Endemann

Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, and a passion for cherry-picking from our wellness shop. She spends a lot of her time interpreting research—established and emerging. And our wellness routines thank her for this. (Yours will, too. Send us your own questions for Gerda: [email protected].)

Dear goop, What do you know about raw milk? Is it safe, and does it really prevent allergies, asthma, and ear infections? —Aiden M.

Hi, Aiden. There’s a battle going on between the 3 percent of Americans who consume raw—unpasteurized—milk and regulators who say that raw milk is risky. Whether or not it can be legally sold in stores or at local farms depends on state law. Regulators are concerned about serious illnesses that have resulted from harmful bacteria in unpasteurized milk, while fans claim benefits for childhood asthma, allergies, and respiratory health. Progress is being made on both fronts: safely producing raw milk and nailing down its benefits.

Lower rates of asthma and allergies have been reported in children who live on farms compared to those who don’t. It’s not clear why this is the case, but drinking raw milk is one factor that’s associated with health benefits. A meta-analysis concluded that children who drink raw milk—whether or not they live on farms—have lower rates of asthma and allergies than children drinking pasteurized milk. Drinking raw milk has also been correlated with lower rates of respiratory tract and ear infections in children. Children who drink raw milk likely come from health-conscious families. Are these benefits due to the raw milk, or are the children healthier for some other, coincidental reason? We’ll look forward to controlled research that can answer this question.

If raw milk is good for the immune system, what is it about raw milk that’s responsible? Pasteurization uses heat treatment to destroy microbes, so raw and pasteurized milk differ greatly in bacteria content. But they differ in many other ways, as well. Most pasteurized milk is also homogenized: Fat droplets are physically broken up so that they don’t separate out and rise to the top. These treatments can also destroy proteins in milk that may be beneficial for gut structure and immunity, including antibodies, lactoferrin, and TGF-β.

Pasteurization was a huge advance in public health when it was introduced in the early 1900s. It was necessary—because of bacterial contamination from poor hygiene and unhealthy cows—to prevent bacteria multiplying in unrefrigerated milk. So there appears to be a solution: The growth of harmful bacteria can be prevented by using good hygiene to prevent contamination with fecal bacteria and by keeping milk cold. Likely due to better hygiene and refrigeration, illnesses reported to the CDC and attributed to raw milk have greatly decreased since 2005 even as more and more people have been drinking it. However, even with strict regulations and testing, there can be problems. For example, in New Zealand, where raw milk can be purchased at registered farms, around 10 percent of cases of campylobacteriosis (which results in diarrhea, cramps, fever, and pain) have been linked to raw milk.

Scientists at UC Davis recently reported finding no pathogenic (illness-causing) bacteria in hundreds of samples of raw milk. What they did find were bacteria primarily in the Pseudomonadaceae family, which are not known to be beneficial probiotics. And unhappily, they found antibiotic-resistant E. coli. These scientists are concerned that the multiplication of bacteria containing antibiotic-resistance genes could lead to these genes being transferred to other bacteria in our bodies. This could happen if raw milk were left at room temperature to make clabber, a yogurt-like fermented milk.

If it’s too difficult to choose which type of cow’s milk to drink or if you are lactose intolerant, rest assured that milk is not essential for healthy bones. Vegetables and beans are good sources of calcium and other bone-building micronutrients. And weight-bearing exercise is the best way to achieve good bone density and avoid fractures.

As someone who is lactose intolerant, here are some of my favorite alternatives to dairy products as sources of probiotics, protein, and calcium. (goop’s raison d’être is providing the highest-quality information and products. I like knowing that all of our supplements are cleanly produced and thoroughly tested for purity and potency.)

In The Mother Load, calcium comes along with an excellent array of vitamins and minerals. I highly recommend this daily supplement packet for all women of reproductive age.

Four Sigmatic makes an organic vegan protein powder from a perfect blend of pea, hemp, chia, and pumpkin seeds. And it includes nice amounts of adaptogens and mushrooms. I love that there’s no stevia in this product. It’s unflavored and very lightly sweetened with organic coconut sugar and monk fruit, and it works wonderfully in smoothies.

  1. goop Wellness THE MOTHER LOAD
    goop Wellness THE MOTHER LOAD goop, $90/$75 with subscription
    Four Sigmatic SUPERFOOD PROTEIN PACKETS goop, $40

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.