Mythology and the Raw Milk Movement

What’s behind recent claims about a milky unpasteurized panacea?

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Milk does the body good. It’s the instructive stuff of life; compounds in a mother’s milk can instill lifelong flavor preferences in her breast-fed offspring. (Meanwhile, infants fed cow’s milk formula may gain excessive weight.) Raw milk enthusiasts claim that cow’s milk is more beneficial if it hasn’t been heated and pasteurized. If Dana Goodyear’s recent story in The New Yorker (subscription required) is any indication, this vocal minority’s claims about a milky unpasteurized panacea is increasingly getting mainstream attention.

The raw milk trend has a certain appeal among libertarians, such as Ron Paul, who view the fight against food regulation as a symbol of freedom. But what’s curious about this movement is that Goodyear (and presumably The New Yorker’s estimable fact-checkers) found only one scientific study to support claims about the immune-enhancing properties of raw milk: the GABRIELA study, a survey conducted in rural Germany, Austria and Switzerland and published in October 2011 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The study’s authors found that unheated “farm milk” contained a protective protein, although it could only partly explain the reduced rates of asthma. Raw milk might be one variable in a web of confounding factors. (After all, the children lived in rural homes, not in sterile labs.) The authors found no association between the bacterial counts in milk and a child’s health; they also couldn’t say whether those samples were representative of a child’s long-term exposure, nor could they rule out the effects of microbial exposure on a child’s developing immune system.

Perhaps raw milk represents a subset of post-Pasteurian activism opposed to our culture’s blanket war on germs. Since about 1989, when David Strachan advanced the “hygiene hypothesis,” an increasing body of evidence links chronic underexposure to germs and microbes to lasting health consequences. The idea is that encountering low levels of nonthreatening stimuli trains our bodies to fight potential allergens and, without such exposure, our immune systems malfunction. Just last week, a group linked the lack of biodiversity in urban areas for a “global megatrend” in allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases.

The health benefit of raw milk remains speculative and its risks remain high—milk is an excellent medium for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. But the GABRIELA study may hint at something else: the health halo of a nostalgic, if apocryphal, place. What little scientific research there is came from the Alps—a sort of Hunza Valley of the West—a place seemingly removed from the ills of modern society, home to Heidi and the curative powers of her grandfather’s goat’s milk (an idea in Nathaneal Johnson’s blog and forthcoming book, The Heidi Hypothesis). Then again, when has the quest for pure, natural foods really hinged on rational arguments?

Photo (cc) by Flickr user rocket.georg

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