Milk: A Rant about Raw

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.

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.