March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
If you're trying to eat more natural and less processed foods, you may be considering consuming raw milk due to claims that raw milk can prevent illnesses such as asthma, allergies, cancer and heart disease. What these misleading claims fail to mention is that by drinking raw milk, you are putting yourself at high risk for serious illness.
Between 1998 and 2011, 2,384 people became ill from drinking raw milk. Of those, 284 had to be hospitalized. While anyone can become sick from drinking raw milk, very young children and the elderly are especially at risk as is anyone with a weakened immune system or cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of outbreaks caused by raw milk continues to increase in the United States.
Why is raw milk so dangerous? Unlike milk you buy at the supermarket, raw milk isn't pasteurized. When milk is pasteurized, it's heated to 161°F for just 20 seconds. While that doesn't affect milk's nutritional value, it does kill off disease-causing bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. Illnesses caused by these bacteria can range from diarrhea and vomiting to paralysis, kidney failure and stroke.
Even if raw milk comes from a small, local or organic farm, it's not necessarily safe. The most hygienic dairy farms are still breeding grounds for bacteria that thrive on cow's skin, as well as dirt, rodents and feces. When even the smallest amounts of bacteria from these sources pass into milk, they quickly grow and multiply, so laboratory tests can't always detect them. And you can't tell if milk is contaminated by drinking, smelling or sipping it either.
When it comes to dairy, a little processing is a good thing. Stick with pasteurized milk and stay safe.