Is it safe to drink raw (unpasteurized) milk? The short answer is a resounding yes — provided it comes from healthy, organically raised, grass-fed, or pastured cows, that is.
Dr. William Winter, who is eminently qualified to speak on this topic, expounds on the health benefits — and safety — of raw milk in this interview. He’s not only a veterinarian; he’s also a livestock nutritionist, holistic herd health consultant, and a chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF).
He’s also written a book for veterinarians called The Holistic Veterinary Handbook, published in 1986 (currently out of print).
Originally trained as a horse veterinarian, Dr. Winter started his career working in a large animal practice in Missouri. There he honed his skills in emergency surgery before eventually switching gears to focus on holistic veterinary medicine.
“Being a horse vet, you’re not working on horses all the time,” he says. “There were plenty of broken down cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats that I worked on. So, I got a full range of experience.
One day, a book appeared to me, [written by] Juliette de Baϊracli Levy, the herbal grandmother...
She taught me through this book about natural rearing, which is a natural diet. It was no vaccines, no wormers, no antibiotics, and no drugs whatsoever. That was my epiphany...
A lot of this stuff we do now, they used to know how to do before the ‘40s. As soon as antibiotics came in, there was this mass amnesia... all the great wisdom was kind of forgotten because it was too hard...
But I read the book, and I became unemployable. No vet in their right mind would hire me because all day I talk people out of vaccines, wormers, and antibiotics, all the things that you actually make money on. So I found myself having to start my own vet hospital.”
He ended up selling his practice in 1999. At that time, it was the biggest holistic veterinary hospital in the United States.
He’s still involved with the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) though, which he co-founded. The AHVMA primarily focuses on pets, so Dr. Winter founded another version of it for livestock, which is still in its infancy.
Raw Milk Has Been Wrongfully Demonized
According to Dr. Winter, raw milk is “the most beautiful substance in the food world.” The same cannot be said for pasteurized milk.
Unfortunately, raw milk has been wrongfully demonized as hazardous — primarily by the conventional dairy industry and those who do not understand the health benefits of ‘live’ foods.
Laws relating to raw milk sales vary by state. According to RealMilk.com,1 states where raw milk is still illegal by sale, cowshare or herdshare, or as pet milk include Hawaii, Nevada, Montana, Iowa, Louisiana, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island.
“I recommend everyone listening to the show to join the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund2 (FTCLDF) because these are pro-bono lawyers who are helping farmers to stay out of jail and helping their lives change,” Dr. Winter says.
It’s important to understand that in order for raw milk to be healthy and safe it must come from healthy organically raised cows that graze on pasture.
Drinking unpasteurized milk from cows raised in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) might well be lethal, and the reason for this is due to the differences in the way the cows are raised and fed. A cow’s natural diet is primarily grass. When a cow eats a lot of grain, three adverse events happen:
The cow becomes acidotic (acidic)
It becomes over-protonated, which harms the cow’s kidneys. As a result, the cow can only provide milk for 1.7 lactations, which is 44 months, after which they get slaughtered
Grain can contain mold mycotoxins that can make the animal sick
Grass-fed organic milk tends to be yellowish, not pure white. The coloration comes from the natural antioxidant carotenoids found in the grass, which is a pre-cursor to vitamin A.
Raw grass-fed milk is also high in omega-3 fats while being low in inflammatory omega-6.It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has a number of health-promoting benefits.
One Reason Why Food Poisoning from Raw Milk Is So Rare
Interestingly, high quality raw organic milk actually has its own built in “immune system.” The elevated white blood cell count in raw milk helps reduce your risk of contracting food poisoning. Pasteurized milk does not have this protective quality.
“Mark McAfee of the Organic Pastures in California... [has been] challenged with little test tubes full of raw milk with all the deadly pathogens, Escherichia coli (E. coli)15787, listeria, campylobacter, or salmonella.
They come back in 30 minutes, and they cannot find any of those nasty bugs, because the raw milk has taken that out of there...
When they put those deadly pathogens into cooked milk and pasteurized milk, it’s a zoo in there. It is a perfect media for bacteria or pathogens to reproduce and go to town on you.
That’s just one little aspect of why intrinsically raw milk is safer than cooked milk. If you look at the numbers, you’ll find that almost all the food poisonings from dairy products are from cooked milk. There’s post-pasteurization contamination.
That isn’t to say that we’re careless about raw milk. We’re excruciatingly careful. I have my own little microscopic certification program. I have a drop site where 1,800 families here in Minneapolis pick up their farm fresh food, including the raw dairy products.
They buy it directly from the farmer. I have been on every farm and almost every small herd. I’ve been working with them to ensure safety.”
Raw milk also contains large quantities of beneficial bacteria, which help “crowd out” pathogens. As noted by Dr. Winter, the only way a pathogen can get a foothold is if there aren’t enough beneficial bacteria.
“If you have a full lining of probiotics in your gut and you happen to swallow some E. coli, salmonella, or staph organisms, there’s no room at the inn. So you’re much, much less likely to have a problem,” he says.
That said, as a consumer, it’s also important to understand how to safely handle and store raw milk once it’s in your possession. A helpful book suggested by Dr. Winter is The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows, and Raw Dairy Products by Ron Schmid.
Should Humans Drink Cow’s Milk?
Some people insist that while raw milk is fine for calves, it’s simply not meant to be consumed by humans. Dr. Winter’s reply to such a statement?
“How do you milk a soybean? I’ve always been curious about that... [Raw cow’s milk] is the only golden food. It’s the only food that you can live on for the rest of your life. But not everybody should have dairy.”
If you’re significantly insulin-resistant and overweight you may want to limit your consumption of raw milk as it contains significant amounts of lactose and galactose — simple sugars that may exacerbate insulin resistance and make it more difficult to lose weight. That said, you may be even worse off drinking reduced-fat or skim milk.
According to Dr. Winter, full-fat raw milk actually tends to modulate the impact of the milk sugar, and people who stick to a low-fat diet tend to be more overweight.
“It’s mapped to be a complete food,” he says. “I call reduced-fat milk or skim milk junk food.”
Butter is another option for those who are insulin-resistant. Butter and cheese are also how you can benefit from raw dairy during the winter, when the cows cannot forage on fresh grasses. Dr. Winter credits his own robust immune system during cold and flu season to eating plenty of summer grass-fed butter during winter months.
“That’s how I get through the winter without a cold. One of the biggest health things I do is I try to eat an equivalent of about a stick of butter a day. I know it’s helping me from losing my marbles. The brain is mostly fat. You need fat insulation for your nerve protein.”
The History of Pasteurization and Homogenization
Growing up in the early ‘60s, my parents had milk delivered to our house, and I have vivid memories of milk fat rising to the top of the milk bottle. The reason the milk you buy today doesn’t do that is because it’s been homogenized. This process has no real biological benefit; it’s done primarily for aesthetic reasons, to make the milk in each package look the same. Dr. Oster believes the homogenization process changes an enzyme in milk, xanthine oxidase, to catalyze atherosclerosis.
Now, the very idea that something needed to be done to kill pathogens in cow’s milk came about after farmers started feeding ethanol swell to their cows. This dietary ‘cheat’ made the cows sick and their milk less safe. Ethanol swell is the spent grain left over after making whiskey. They figured it looked like grain, and the cows liked it, so they began using it as feed.
The problem is, this spent grain was neither whole nor natural, and didn’t provide the nourishment the cows needed. As a result, the cattle began developing Johne’s disease, and bovine tuberculosis. They also began contracting human tuberculosis from sick immigrants hired to do the milking, which was all done by hand.
“Along comes Louis Pasteur from France. [In the 1850s] he became famous for pasteurizing wine in France because they were having some contamination and bacterial problems with the wine. So they said, ‘Oh, will this work on milk?’ [He said] ‘Well, yes it does. It kills some of the pathogens.’ So they started cooking this bad milk from the ethanol swell. They then realized that it killed most of the TB, a lot of the Johne’s, and a lot of the pathogens,” Dr. Winter explains.
“It just started unraveling from there. I’d like to say, over the last hundred years, it has enabled the dairy industry to sell us dirtier and dirtier milk, with more germs in it, less of the good factors in it, and certainly less of the healthy white blood cells. It has a lot of the bad, dead, and excessive white blood cells because they have another infection, which is called mastitis... [Preventing] mastitis basically goes back to the soil. There were two things they didn’t teach us in vet school or medical school.
One is soil science and the other is plant science. Really, if you want to have a healthy child, you have to have healthy animals if you’re eating animal food. To have healthy animals, you have to have healthy plants, and you’re not going to get healthy plants without healthy soil. So, I’ve had to be a de facto soil scientist and a de facto plant scientist. That’s essential for healthy animals with no mastitis.”
The enzymes are a critical factor in raw milk. When you cook (pasteurize) the milk, you kill all the enzymes, including the lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase. The word “peroxidase” means hydrogen peroxide. White blood cells contain small amounts of hydrogen peroxide that it will spill out and kill bacteria. When those enzymes are destroyed, the milk loses its innate ability to prevent bacterial overgrowth. Lactoferrin has a similar effect. Lacto means milk and ferrin means iron. Slaughter houses actually use this kind of iron-bearing enzyme as a natural antibacterial agent.
Now we also have ultra-pasteurization, which employs exceptionally high heat for shorter amounts of time. This is even worse than regular pasteurization. You can tell a product has been ultra-pasteurized when it no longer requires refrigeration, and you can be certain such products will do you absolutely no good. Radiology (X-ray) technology is also used to essentially sterilize the milk. This is referred to as cold pasteurization.
“It’s a really incredible marketing scam for an irradiated food,” Dr. Winter says. “But they’re doing a great job of selling it. Some people are actually seeking out dairy products and meats that have been irradiated.”
Other Types of Raw Milk
Cow’s milk isn’t the only type of raw milk you can drink. Other healthy options include goat, sheep, donkey, and camel. Milk from cows is the predominant type of milk in the US, but worldwide, more people drink goat milk than any other type of milk. Both sheep- and goat milk are closer to human milk than cow’s milk. Goat milk is almost identical, so babies who cannot tolerate cow’s milk may do quite well on goat milk.
“I had the pleasure of milking a camel this winter,” Dr. Winter says. “I was at Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, at the Miller's Organic Farm. They milk camels... I found it a little bit strong for my taste. The flavor is delicious, but it’s like drinking white paint. It’s the heaviest, thickest, and whitest stuff I’ve ever seen in my life. But camel milk is very, very good for you.
There are a lot of people with food allergies, especially dairy allergies, who do great on camel milk. At the Miller’s Organic Farm, they sell it in their farm store... We have a dairy and a creamery in Wisconsin called Carr Valley Cheese. They have one of the top 10 cheeses in the whole world. It’s a triple cheese: goat, sheep, and cow milk mixed together, and it is phenomenal.”
Where to Buy Raw Milk, and What to Do if It’s Not Legal in Your State
Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com are two excellent websites to peruse if you’re looking for raw milk. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state. On a positive note, in the last 12 months, 33 states have opened up the legal status for raw milk. So, it’s getting easier to obtain. EatWild.com and WestonAPrice.org also provide lists of certified organic farmers known to produce safe, wholesome raw dairy products. You can contact your local Weston A Price chapter leader directly if you have questions. (Dr. Winter is the chapter leader for the Twin Cities.)
“I’m a foodie so I don’t mind putting a little extra effort [to obtain it],” Dr. Winter says. “It’s fun for me to find good food...I’m a member of two food co-ops. The movement started in Minnesota, so we have a head start...You can’t buy raw milk there yet, but you can buy really good milk.
What Sally Fallon recommends is if you can’t find raw milk, by the way, is to culture it. Buy organic, un-homogenized milk and turn it into yogurt or kefir. That way you put in some life back into it, some biology, some enzymes and probiotics. So that’s one thing you can do right now [if you don’t have access to raw milk] — culture your organic local milk.”