Cheese Please Milk: A Rant about Raw Jocelyn Doyle

This week’s column has been inevitable since I started writing for HelloGiggles a little while ago, because this particular subject is a long-time favourite rant of mine. I wrote a whole Masters’ thesis about it less than a year ago, and I’m still not even one little bit sick of it. (My friends and family probably are, but that’s where you come in, gentle Reader.) I want to talk about raw milk, a food that is a source of continued controversy.

So what is raw milk? Basically, when milk is referred to as “raw,” it means it hasn’t been pasteurised. Pasteurisation means heating a food to a specific temperature (often 72°C) for around fifteen seconds, and then immediately cooling it. It was developed by a dude named Louis Pasteur way back in 1864, and has since become standard practice, particularly in Western cultures; it kills off any bacteria present in the food, and is widely accepted as the most reliable way to ensure food safety. Pasteurisation is most commonly used in milk and beer.

The pasteurisation of milk is a touchy subject. If you look it up, the internet is awash with tales from both sides of the raw milk debate; horror stories of illnesses contracted from the consumption of raw milk products sit alongside heavy pro-raw propaganda, preaching the virtues of unpasteurised milk. The argument is often characterised as between the safe but boring pasteurised milk – the Brandon Walsh of milk, if you will – and the dangerous but exciting (raw) Dylan McKay. The difference is much less black and white than that; there are loads of pasteurised cheeses that are far from boring, and I’ve eaten a few raw milk snore-fests myself, but this perceived dichotomy remains at the heart of this endless debate. My view is, there’s a place for both in this world: I may be a sucker for Jason Priestley’s smile, but my BFF Jules can’t get enough of Luke Perry’s angsty forehead, and that’s okay.

Why are people weird about raw milk?

The argument against the consumption of unpasteurised milk, and associated products such as cheese, is based largely on concerns about health and safety, with nasties like listeria, salmonella and E. coli . One might assume that the supposed dangers of raw milk could be eliminated during the transformation into cheese. While this may be the case with hard or aged cheeses – those with a high salt content and low moisture – raw milk opponents insist that soft unpasteurised cheeses carry the same risks as unprocessed milk, particularly when matured for fewer than sixty days.

A Rant About Raw 2

Why do I think raw milk is great? I don’t drink much milk myself (although I never say no to a glass of delicious, farm-fresh raw milk), but I do eat an awful lot of cheese, and I’m a long-time dedicated fan of raw milk cheese. Here’s why.

  1. Health. Raw milk is good for you. (To any of you who are lactose intolerant, I feel endlessly sorry for you. Although I’m a little confused as to how you’re reading my cheese column without weeping.) There are a wide range of health benefits arguably associated with raw milk, including positive effects on cancer, weight loss, kidney disease, allergies, skin problems, urinary tract issues and prostate problems. There is also significant evidence that pasteurising milk destroys its natural nutrients, vitamins and friendly  bacteria; raw milk is a valuable source of Vitamin C and B, but it’s been proven that pasteurisation causes substantial losses of these. It also decreases levels of minerals like iron, copper and manganese. Realistically, the milk-related incidences of food poisoning are extremely rare, and other foods that are statistically far more risky get much less of the media-bashing that raw milk does. Even pasteurised milk has been known to make people sick, for cryin’ out loud.
  2. Naturalness. Raw milk is a completely natural product, and there’s something comforting about that when half the foods out there are filled with chemical additives and preservatives.
  3. Flavour. Raw milk has a depth of flavour that pasteurised milk just can’t reach: a sweetness, a creaminess, and something unmistakeably cow-ish. Raw milk cheeses tend to be more varied, a bit more wild than their pasteurised cousins.
  4. Tradition. Using raw milk to make cheese results in a more traditional product. Pasteurisation has existed for a very small proportion of our long cheesemaking history, and all cheese made prior to Louis Pasteur’s 1876 breakthrough was created using raw milk. Unpasteurised milk is what our ancestors have been drinking since we domesticated the cow thousands of years ago, and they all survived long enough to get me here today. I’m not exactly worried.
  5. Respect. On top of all of this, I think any cheesemaker who persists in using raw milk deserves some serious kudos. Raw milk is much harder to work with, seeing as you’re starting with a host of interesting, but potentially unpredictable bacteria rather than the clean slate of pasteurised milk. Making a consistent raw milk cheese demands a high level of skill, craftsmanship, and control, and a dedication above and beyond that of even the most hardworking maker of pasteurised cheese. As if that wasn’t reason enough for respect, these gals and guys also have to work within much stricter rules, under constant supervision and pressure from their respective food safety authorities. It ain’t easy being raw.

I could get into an endless rant about food safety authorities in various countries and how they’re wrong about raw milk and how cranky I get when I think about it too long, but instead I’ll wrap it up now so y’all still like me. The foundation, the crux of my argument is this: whether you’re an advocate for raw milk or not, we (as intelligent adults) should all have the choice of whether or not to put it in our bodies.

[All images featured via ShutterStock]

What about you? Do you love raw milk cheese, or are you passionate about pasteurisation? Leave a comment below.

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  1. I could also rant endlessly about raw milk, but for now I’ll stick with just this: I grew up with all kinds of lactose-intolerance issues, but as of about 2 years ago when I started drinking raw milk, it turns out my body was just rejecting the fake stuff all that time. I still get sick from certain things and that just makes me wonder what the heck they’re actually doing to it. Breyer’s “Natural“ cartons of ice cream, for instance. I basically live off the raw milk and life is better now. Go, Natural!!

    • Hi Margaret

      This actually isn’t the first time I’ve heard of someone with lactose intolerance being able to digest raw milk. I’m delighted it’s working for you. Go, Natural indeed!

      Jocelyn Doyle | 12/06/2013 07:12 am
  2. my favorite part of this is the 90210 reference.

  3. I am a big advocate of raw milk, too. For me, I feel as though we are cooking our food to death, thus creating a nutritionally dead food world. It’s no wonder that people talk of malnutrition in children in the US. They are obese, and malnourished. Go figure. Eat something real, and you might feel better.

    Also, for those complaining about e.coli: CDC says 42 people got sick from raw milk every year in the last 10 yr study. Compare that to all of the cantaloupe, spinach, meat, etc, recalls and illnesses in just the last year alone. Raw milk doesn’t seem so bad.

    • I agree, Kate – there’s something solid and reassuring about a whole, natural food that humans have been digesting in exactly the same form for a few thousand years. I also think raw milk gets an amount of bad press that is disproportionate to its actual risks.

      Jocelyn Doyle | 12/05/2013 04:12 am
  4. I think that when you know the source of your food you can get away with a lot. I’ve had 100% organic beef (cooked medium) and raw milk and cheese. But I actually spent time on those farms, even worked on them, and know exactly how the animals and food are prepared. But I still think that some things can be pushed aside when it comes to mass production. I’m still an advocate for pasteurization and for medicating livestock (minimal treatment). For the most part , moderation is key. You also can’t forget that depth of flavor comes from what the cows have grazed on, different grasses, mosses, and veggies give the milk a different flavor and creates either wonderful or horrible flavors (I did dairy judging in high school). Food is art and science and I think both belong in the production of food, it saddens me how drastic pop culture has made the food debate where you must have everything “organic” or pump your food filled with antibiotics and gms. But I guess I’m rambling now so in summation, know where your food comes from and everything in moderation. I would love to read more about your thesis.

    • Hi Alicia,

      I agree that there is absolutely room for both science and art when it comes to food. I also concur that traceability is completely necessary where raw milk is concerned; I’m not for a moment saying I’d drink any raw milk handed to me!

      My thesis was called “For The Love Of Cheese: A Study into the Future of Irish Raw Milk Cheeses And the People Who Make Them.” It was aimed at examining current Irish raw milk cheese production in terms of its history, weighing both sides of the raw milk debate, and using this information to make predictions about the future of raw milk in Ireland. I’m happy to say it was a largely-optimistic conclusion!

      Jocelyn Doyle | 12/04/2013 05:12 am
  5. This really is a rant. As in an opinion not substantiated by evidence. The consumption of raw milk and raw milk products is not recommended because there is a higher risk of contamination. Risk is the key issue here. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that there was 150 times greater risk posed by raw milk than by pasturised milk. That is based on hard data not on stories from the Internet. Also studies recently conducted by the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Authority found that there was not a significant reduction in nutritional value as a result of pasturisation. I don’t understand why such a clearly opinionated article on a subject has been published in this site without an attempt to present the opposing view. Raw milk and raw milk products may not be harmful but there is a higher risk of harm. Pregnant women, children, older people and others with immunity issues should probably avoid it.

    • Hi Rebecca,

      I thought I made it pretty clear that this was an opinion piece (even the title mentions that this is a rant), so apologies if you were expecting a more balanced argument. As I mentioned, I did actually write a thesis about this, which obviously presented both sides of the debate, so it’s not as if I haven’t done my research on the subject: For example, one 2011 study, also by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that, while an average of over 800,000 Americans contract Campylobacter jejuni every year, just thirty-four of these cases arise from the consumption of unpasteurised milk, while just three out of 1,027,561 annual cases of salmonella are the result of ingesting raw milk. I am happy to provide a reference for this work should you so desire.

      After carefully examining the evidence, this is my personal conclusion on the subject of raw milk and raw milk cheese. I absolutely believe that pasteurised milk should also remain available. Just like I stated at the end, I believe that we should all have the choice of what to put in our bodies, so if you feel that ingesting raw milk is a risk you’re not willing to take, then that’s your decision.

      Jocelyn Doyle | 12/04/2013 05:12 am