A little background
Some of you know that when we our second daughter Raya was around 5 or 6 months old, I started “homebrewing” her formula based on a recipe for raw cow’s milk based baby formula I found at The Weston A. Price Foundation website. I made this formula for Raya for about six months before we just started giving her straight raw cow’s milk. Today, and ever since (some seven months later), both our girls continue drinking raw cow’s milk. I’ll circle back and talk more about that in a minute.
The data shows that raw milk is low risk
The WSJ recently published an article titled New Studies Confirm: Raw Milk A Low-Risk Food. The studies alluded to were from a presentation given to Canada’s CDC back in mid-May by Nadine Ijaz. Here’s a clip from the article (emphasis mine):
The reviewer, Nadine Ijaz, MSc, demonstrated how inappropriate evidence has long been mistakenly used to affirm the “myth” that raw milk is a high-risk food, as it was in the 1930s. Today, green leafy vegetables are the most frequent cause of food-borne illness in the United States. British Columbia CDC’s Medical Director of Environmental Health Services, Dr. Tom Kosatsky, who is also Scientific Director of Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health,welcomed Ms. Ijaz’s invited presentation as “up-to-date” and “a very good example of knowledge synthesis and risk communication.”
Quantitative microbial risk assessment is considered the gold-standard in food safety evidence, a standard recommended by the United Nations body Codex Alimentarius, and affirmed as an important evidencing tool by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada. The scientific papers cited at the BC Centre for Disease Control presentation demonstrated a low risk of illness from unpasteurized milk consumption for each of the pathogens Campylobacter, Shiga-toxin inducing E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus. This low risk profile applied to healthy adults as well as members of immunologically-susceptible groups: pregnant women, children and the elderly. …
“While it is clear that there remains some appreciable risk of food-borne illness from raw milk consumption, public health bodies should now update their policies and informational materials to reflect the most high-quality evidence, which characterizes this risk as low,” said Ijaz. “Raw milk producers should continue to use rigorous management practices to minimize any possible remaining risk.”
How about that?
Ijaz’s presentation on the myths of raw milk
I did some Googling and was able to find Nadine Ijaz’s blog The Bovine, and from there, a link to her presentation as she presented it, with all the slides, in full. You can find it here (Run time looks to be about an hour). Notably, while Ijaz is biased towards regulatory reform in the milk industry, her research was “independent and unfunded.”
I’ve not had the time to watch the full presentation, but one site has already summarized it here. The presentation is organized around exposing the major myths around raw milk and isn’t limited to the prevailing myth most people believe—that raw milk could make you sick because it’s not pasteurized. She also tackles some of the more positive (but misguided) notions around raw milk. Here are the six myths she speaks to (here’s the screenshot from her presentation):
- Myth #1: Raw milk is more digestible for people with lactose intolerance
- Myth #2: Enzymes and beneficial bacteria in raw milk make it more digestible for humans
- Myth #3: Raw milk is shown to prevent cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes
- Myth #4: Raw milk is a high-risk food
- Myth #5: Raw milk has no unique health benefits
- Myth #6: Industrial milk processing is harmless to health
I had read some of these (apparently) myths as selling points for drinking raw milk back when I first learned about it. I certainly am guilty of repeating things about it’s digestibility to friends and family regarding feeding an infant raw milk. Ijaz’s presentation debunks myths 1-3 as being unsubstantiated, but I’d say that 1-3 are really minor points (Disease/illness prevention certainly is intriguing, but I’d never thought of raw milk as some panacea).
Moving past these first three myths, you get to the meat of Ijaz’s presentation—that raw milk is low risk.
Raw milk is less risky than salad (Should we ban the sale of leafy greens?)
I love these two slides (around 121):
Just this year a U.S. CDC study has said that green leafy vegetables (a.k.a. salad greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, among other things) are the most frequent cause of foodborne illness in the United States causing 20% of all cases from 1998 to 2008.
Note that back in 1938, 25% of U.S. foodborne outbreaks were attributed to raw milk; however, today, 1-6% of foodborne outbreaks across industrialized nations are attributed to all dairy products (pasteurized or not) (per slide 103).
In short, isn’t the takeaway here that you’re almost at a larger risk for getting sick eating raw vegetables than you are for drinking raw milk?
The benefits outweigh the (low) risk
One of the things that raw milk apparently is good for according to some 8 cross-sectional and 2 cohort studies from 2001-2010, there is evidence that raw milk consumption may reduce asthma and allergy in young children. Most recently, a 2011 study called the GABRIELA study that took data on some 8,000 school-aged children found (per slide 157) an independent protective effect of raw farm milk on development of asthma, allergy and hay fever. Just how much protection? Reduction by approximately half.
Given how pervasive allergies seem to be these days among children, this seems like a pretty huge reason to give your kids raw milk.
Ijaz had even more to share in her presentation and if you don’t have time to give it a listen (I didn’t), scan Wellness Tips’ summary. Here’s a quote I’ll leave you with:
It is scientifically reasonable for people, including pregnant women and parents of young children to choose hygienically produced raw milk over industrially processed milk, whether or not they heat it themselves afterwards. It is not scientifically justifiable to prohibit people, including pregnant women or parents of young children from choosing to seek out an important food which may effectively prevent allergy and asthma.
Nadine Ijaz, MSc.
My own experience with raw milk and raw milk formula
I personally don’t drink milk be it raw milk or otherwise. I do consume dairy in the form of yogurt and cottage cheese, but that’s another story.
However, my daughters are definitely on the raw milk train and have been now for a year (for my youngest) and about a half a year for my oldest. While I don’t know if they’ve benefited from allergy or asthma avoidance, both are in daycare and both are exposed (As a result) to a lot of human born pathogens.
I wish I could say they’ve never gotten sick during that time, but it’s just not so. I will say that Raya’s teachers, while being curious (but accepting) of her drinking my homemade raw cow’s milk formula, remarked on how infrequently she was sick relative to other kids in her class. Raya was born about a month before her due date, spent a few days in the NICU while her lungs shed fluid after she was born, and was immediately on antibiotics.
Part of me felt like these circumstances could be setbacks developmentally to my kid. I think it’s the main reason I made the commitment to give her a better formula once she went off breast milk. But it wasn’t the only reason. As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time learning about nutrition, I just couldn’t find a good option for baby formula. I also wanted my wife to feel good about her transitioning to formula, so I wanted Raya’s primary food source to be really healthy.
The thing is: mass produced baby formulas just don’t seem all that healthy. Take a look at the baby formula available on the shelf at your local grocer and you’ll find there’s a lot that’s disconcerting. There are weird ingredients that, while they may not be bad per se, I don’t understand. Even some of the organic, milk-based formulas still soy oil. There’s questionable sugars (And God forbid you use a soy-based formula). Hardly any have any probiotics in them. And anything that is shelf-stable for months, well, it may not kill your kid but it’s very likely not ideal.
Given all this, it’s hard not to step back and reflect, “Maybe my infant child deserves healthier food—particularly since this is the only food they’re going to be eating.” And more to the point: the convenience of buying store-bought, ready-to-mix formula isn’t a good reason to shortchange my daughter’s health if I can help it.
So despite it meaning I had to make her formula about 3X a week, with each batch taking probably about 20 minutes and requiring weekly trips to a farmer’s market to get “Dairy Pet Aid” from a Tennessee farm that made deliveries to Georgia, I opted to make Raya’s formula. And I’ve never seen any drawbacks from that decision.
And as we go forward, we continue to get raw milk that’s apparently only suitable for pets to drink. Isn’t it strange that it’s legal to buy healthier food for our pets than our kids?
Hopefully, Ijaz’s work with the CDC in Canada will trickle down south to the United States. If nothing else, increased awareness through publications like the WSJ should help moo-ve the needle in the right direction.
And if you’re not already plugged into a farm that can provide you with raw milk (or cheese!) or grassfed beef or pastured poultry, what are you waiting for? The only way our food supply is going to get better is if you make an effort — and it only takes a small effort — to buy better food. In our house, while we’ve taken many steps towards more organic, more local, healthier food, we still shop at Publix, Kroger, and Costco. A step in the right direction isn’t an all or nothing proposition.
Do what you can and build on it over time (if you can!)—that’s what I do.