I’ve been meaning to write an update to my original post on dairy, raw or otherwise, and its place in a healthy diet since I watched the youtube video below.
In the video, shot at the Harvard Law School Society, Sally Fallon from the Weston Price Foundation and Dr David Gumpert, author of “The Raw Milk Revolution” debate against Fred Pritzker, a food safety lawyer, and Dr Heidi Cassenberg from the Minnesota Dept of Agriculture’s Diary Inspection Department as to whether or not raw milk is safe, and if its sale should be restricted.
WARNING: I’m not actually recommending you watch the video – it’s 90 minutes of your life you’ll never get back!
Why do I not recommend the video? The subjects of the role of dairy in the diet, raw vs pasteurised milk, food safety, and public protection vs freedom of choice, are all topics of great interest to me, therefore surely this should have been a riveting debate?
Unfortunately it soon transpired that the debaters on both sides were severely lacking in both critical thinking skills, and their understanding of risk and statistics.
Further to this, the art of debate is a skill in itself, and again, all participants failed to impress.
One might have expected that a lawyer, whose full time occupation is to debate, would have decimated the opposition, irrespective of the “facts”, but no, he was content to simply trot out anecdotes and photos of people who’d got food poisoning from raw milk.
I love a good debate, either being involved in one, or watching one, but in terms of actually being useful in swinging people’s opinion, I think that they are of very limited utility.
The majority of the audience’s preconceived biases will mean that regardless of what is said, they will leave the debate with their beliefs more firmly entrenched, and if, by some miracle their views are changed, it is more likely due to the charisma and skill of the debater who changed their mind, rather than the actual validity of the argument.
The one good thing that did come out of watching the debate, was that it highlighted many of the logical fallacies and misunderstandings on both sides of the debate, and prompted me to address some of these in an improvement on my previous article.
In the debate, the anti raw milk side rely on shock tactics, giving examples of horrendous cases of food poisoning caused by raw milk, and stating that it is one of, if not the, most high risk foods for pathogens. The pro raw milk advocates counter this with examples of people getting sick from contaminated spinach and other common foods, stating that more people get food poisoning from contaminated vegetables, than they do from raw milk.
So who is correct?
Of course, it is not so simple, as both are correct in their own ways.
According to CDC data:
“…there were 86 reported food poisoning outbreaks from raw milk between 1998 and 2008, resulting in 1,676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations, and two deaths”1
Whereas FDA data also reveals that in 2006:
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and California’s Department of Health Services (CDHS) today released a joint report on an extensive investigation into the causes of an E.coli O157:H7 outbreak last fall that was associated with contaminated Dole brand Baby Spinach and resulted in 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths”2
Unfortunately, I can’t find data for the same time period for total deaths from E.Coli infected spinach – perhaps this was the only outbreak, perhaps not. We can conclude however, that there were at least 50% more deaths from raw spinach than raw milk in the 20 year period from 1998 to 2008, therefore we should ban all raw spinach and drink raw milk instead…
But wait – it’s not quite that simple. Yes, there have been more deaths from eating raw spinach than from consuming raw milk, but there have also been many, many more people consuming raw spinach than there have drinking raw milk, so it is not fair to make a straight comparison.
It is a bit like comparing deaths by chain saw juggling, to deaths from falling down the stairs. Far more people die from falling down the stairs than juggling chainsaws. This doesn’t, however, mean that chainsaw juggling is safer than walking down the stairs!
Another key point to consider, is that one should look at more than just death rates – the FDA bases its decisions on total cases of food poisonings. While death is certainly not good, severe food poisoning resulting in hospitalisation is not high on my list of priorities either.
In fairness to the health authorities, relatively speaking, raw milk is much more dangerous than most other foods in terms of food poisoning, and it is for this reason that it is “singled out”.
Let me point out at this stage, however, that regardless of its relative risk to raw spinach, drinking raw milk is much safer than juggling chainsaws (unless perhaps you’re a very talented juggler with a compromised immune system).
Indeed, this is where I strongly disagree with calls for the banning of raw milk, or claims that it is inherently dangerous and a significant public health risk.
Yes, raw milk may be considerably more dangerous than some uncooked baby spinach leaves, but so is just about everything else in life!
Very few things in life come without any risk whatsoever. These risks have to be weighed against the benefits, and a decision made as to whether the behaviour is worth it. Personally, I’d like to be able to make these decisions myself!
Perhaps there are some demographics which may be best advised to avoid raw milk (which I’ll come back to in a moment), but surely that decision should be left to them?
Are there benefits to drinking raw milk?
The Weston Price Foundation proclaim raw milk as a superfood – it will cure all ills, and is vastly superior to its pasteurised counterpart, which has had all the nutrition cooked out of it, and is even potentially dangerous due to the damage caused by the heating and homogenisation of the fats.
The evidence they site in the debate for this are from two main sources: epidemiological studies, and animal studies.
Fallon references relatively recent studies, which have found that children that have grown up on rural farms drinking raw milk, have lower incidences of asthma and allergies than average. I.e. less asthma and allergies than children who have grown up in cities, drinking pasteurised milk.
I have talked ad nauseam about the pitfalls of epidemiological data, but surely even the least scientifically minded individual could deduce that there might possibly be other differences between the lifestyle and environment of farm children and city kids which could act as confounders?
The other sources of evidence they reference, are rat studies. Fallon explains that when rats were fed only pasteurised milk withered, and failed to grow, whereas rats fed a diet comprised solely of raw milk flourished and thrived.
Based on this study, if you get a rat, and decide to feed it nothing but milk, definitely go for unpasteurised.
While this study does appear to indicate that pasteurisation may affect the nutrient availability of milk for rats – though more research would be needed before the same could be said for humans – what it doesn’t go any where near proving, is that children need access to raw milk in order to thrive (which appears to be the claim of Sally Fallon in the video).
Raw milk is not a superfood, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a superfood!
There is absolutely no nutritional requirement for dairy products in the human diet, either raw or pasteurised, providing that other nutrient dense animal foods such as pasture raised meat or eggs, or oily fish are consumed.
Yes, if you’re planning on feeding your child only cow’s milk and nothing else, then perhaps, raw milk might be the better choice – but this would clearly be completely insane.
Why Raw Milk is Like Riding a Bicycle
I love to cycle. I go out for bike rides purely for pleasure, and I also commute by bicycle through the city on a regular basis.
Is cycling good for you? Now there’s a question! Undoubtedly, daily movement is essential for the human animal to thrive – that’s a central theme to this blog.
Cycling is, however, also a high risk activity. 122 cyclists were killed on Britain’s roads in 2012 – If they had chosen to cycle solely for it’s potential benefits for life extension through the development of cardiovascular fitness, turns out it was not a good choice.
Indeed, if your sole aim is longevity, it’s probably safer to drive to work (or take public transport), and do your cycling indoors on a stationary bike.
Personally, however, I get many additional benefits from cycling – I enjoy it, it saves me time and money, and it reduces my impact on the environment – I feel that the benefits outweigh the risks.
It should also be noted, however, that the risks are not equal for all.
Perhaps it’s just my own cognitive bias of illusory superiority, but I like to think that I’ve got decent reactions, co-ordination and spatial awareness, dare I say better than average…
I further minimise my risks by wearing a helmet, picking cycle routes which avoid busy main roads, also being a car driver (therefore understanding the highway code and how drivers think and react), and, perhaps most critically, not cycling like an idiot!
Finally, by being a reasonably well built man in my mid 30’s and excellent health, if I were to be involved in an accident, I’ve a much better chance of avoiding severe injury or death, than someone smaller or in ill health.
I see many cyclists on the road, however, who look like their chances of making it to retirement age if they continue to rely on pedal power may be severely diminished!
There are people of all ages, who would probably be best to stick to walking on the pavement, but the two demographics for whom in general cycling might be most ill-advised in my opinion are the very young, and the very old.
I cringe every time I see someone cycling through the city with a small child in one of those bike seats.
No matter how great your cycling skills, you can never account for the actions of other road users. A car pulling out from a side street in front of you, or cutting you off while turning left (the two most common risks for road cycling in my experience), will most likely result in a nasty scrape for an adult on a bike, but could be far more serious for a small child.
At the opposite end of the scale, older people, often with reduced sensory perception, reaction times, and increased fragility, are at much higher risk of both being involved in an accident, and struggling to recover from the aftermath.
So what the hell does all this have to do with raw milk?
I choose to drink raw, grass fed milk because:
- It tastes great
- It necessitates high animal welfare
- It’s nutritious
- It may help support healthy gut flora
- It can be produced locally and sustainably
I don’t believe it’s critical to my health or well-being – I’ve gone dairy free before, and felt great. There’s mountains of evidence that dairy is in no way necessary for health, providing there are other nutrient dense, good quality animal products in the diet.
We are fortunate to live in a time of abundance. While raw milk can certainly provide an ethical and sustainable source of nutrient density to my diet, if its supply were to be cut off for some reason, and I had to switch to pasteurised dairy products, or no dairy at all, I could still easily meet all my dietary requirements from other sources.
Yes, there may be some risk involved in drinking raw milk, but in my opinion, for myself, they are minimal, and they are worth it, and as with cycling, my age, health and fitness, go towards minimising that risk.
Also as with cycling, however, there are those populations who are at much higher risk from the consumption of raw milk.
- Pregnant Women
- Young Children
- The Elderly
- The Immunocompromised
Personally, if my wife were pregnant, or I had a young child, I would not want them to consume unpasteurised dairy. I’d rather ensure that their nutritional needs are met by other means without the risks.
This is an area where perhaps, dare I say it, I could entertain the idea of some kind of legislation. I believe adults should have the right to make their own decisions, and consume whatever products they like, regardless of the risk. Children on the other hand are a bit of a trickier question…
Should a mother have the right to feed her 6 month old raw milk, even though there’s no proven benefit, and a baby is at extremely high risk if the milk were to be contaminated, or should the child be protected by the state, and prohibited from consuming raw dairy until 16/18 as with alcohol?
To be honest, that’s a decision I’m glad I’m not in a position to have to make!
Would I stop cycling and drinking raw milk when I get old? Who knows! I guess it all depends upon what happens in life, but I doubt it.
I think that a large proportion of physical degeneration is due to bad lifestyle habits and diet, rather than an inevitable part of ageing. I’d like to believe that when I’m old, I’ll still have better faculties and health than average. There are certainly examples of people in their 70s and 80s now, who are probably fitter and healthier than many 20-40 year olds!
There is a big difference however, between continuing to do something you’ve always done into your old age, compared to taking something up anew.
Suddenly deciding to take up commuting through London City centre by bike and drinking raw milk at 85 in order to stay young is probably ill advised, particularly if done simultaneously…
Regardless, however, I’d still fight for my right to do so at whatever age.