American grocery shoppers love the word 'natural'. There's a certain sense that if we just eat enough ancient grains, avocado oil, and açai berries, we'll live forever -- with glowing skin and radiant, shiny hair along the way, of course.
Realistically, there's no magic-bullet food that can stave off the inevitable specter of mortality -- no, not even pomegranate dipped in dark chocolate, I'm afraid. But the trend away from heavily processed foods is a positive one on the whole. Supporting small local farmers at city markets is better than pouring money into the bottomless pockets of agro-giants; whole grains are better than bleached flour; actual cheese has more valuable nutritional content than 'cheese products' that look like they belong in a Harry Potter spell more than a casserole recipe.
The problem comes in distinguishing between when processing a food is unnecessary, and when it's extremely important. Taking an antibiotic because you have a cold or some other virus is a terrible idea, but that doesn't mean you should skip the amoxicillin when you come down with strep throat. Let's not throw the baby out with the processed bathwater -- and the particular baby I want to save today is the one named 'Pasteurization'.
Pasteurization is what happens to your milk in between the point when it leaves a cow and arrives in your mouth. It's a process that involves heating a liquid up to destroy most of the harmful, disease-causing bacteria in it, and if you have at least a basic biology education, that probably sounds like a pretty good deal to you. Unless, of course, you are a raw milk advocate, in which case you probably have some thoughts about how the pasteurized cream in my morning coffee is slowly destroying me from the inside out.
Fans of raw milk can list all kinds of purported health benefits for the stuff, but the problem, as with so many arguments predicated on the degree to which something is "natural", not many of these benefits stand up to much analysis. For example, raw milk is supposed to be safe for the lactose-intolerant, because pasteurization allegedly converts the milk sugars normally found in dairy into some mysterious and terrible alternate chemical form that the human body is unable to recognize. Spoilers: it does not do this. Drinking raw milk makes no difference in how lactose intolerant a person is, because lactose intolerance means the gene that lets you break down milk sugars stops working. Your genes do not care where you got the milk that you're drinking. In fact, since lactose intolerance predates not only pasteurization but also written human history, it's kind of hard to blame this one on modern preservation techniques.
The other part of the "lactose intolerance" argument is that pasteurization destroys good bacteria alongside the bad. And of course, it's true; the heat source can't distinguish between a nasty E. coli and a friendly Lactobacillus, so there are going to be some teeny tiny casualties. But the consequence of having too much E. coli in your milk is going to the hospital; the consequence of having too little Lactobacillus is eating a cup of yogurt now and then. I know which one I prefer.
Another argument against pasteurized milk is that raw milk is supposed to be much more nutritionally beneficial: "nature's perfect food", as advocates would have you think. But studies have found no difference in the quantity or quality of proteins between raw and pasteurized milk, and minimal differences in vitamin levels. Sorry, everyone -- there is no perfect food gifted to you by nature, because most of nature would much rather kill you in the face than cure your lactose intolerance.
Another allegation is that raw milk helps prevent allergies, or, depending on who you ask and whether or not they learned science from a textbook that had Jesus riding a dinosaur on its cover, that pasteurized milk might even cause allergies. The main problem with this is where the researchers got their data: they studied a bunch of kids who grew up on farms drinking raw milk, and concluded that they had fewer allergy problems. Huzzah! Except that the 'grew up on farms' part of the equation can't be so easily left out; we've known for a long time that kids who grow up with exposure to dirt and bugs and all kinds of fun, gross stuff don't get as many allergies as their indoor-oriented counterparts. Do a study with a bunch of video-game-loving book nerds who drank their raw milk in their mom's basement instead of out in the fields, and we'll talk.
Raw milk advocates would like to paint this fight as some good old-fashioned nature-loving hippies against The Man, but really, this is a fight over whether or not it's okay to increase your family's chances of catching a case of the bloody poops by a factor of ten. Raw milk makes up only about 1% of the milk consumed in the USA, but it still accounts for a higher number of disease outbreaks than pasteurized milk. There's nothing fun about vomiting your guts out thanks to bacterial contamination in your morning breakfast smoothie, but hey, on the bright side -- there's really nothing more natural!
(Feature image: itVega / Shutterstock)