Pasteurized vs Unpasteurized Milk vs Pasture-Raised
Labels should be on foods to inform people what’s in their food and educate them about their choices. But in reality, more often than not, labels can be confusing and misleading. Take the dairy industry, for example. Ever stroll through the supermarkets and see “pasteurized”, “unpasteurized” and “pasture-raised”? They all sound similar, but what the difference? Which product is a healthier choice?
You may have seen “pasteurized” written on milk, wine, and many other products. Pasteurized means that the product has been through a process involving heat treatment or radiation in order to make it safer and/or improve its shelf life. For example, milk pasteurization process involves simply heating it to 161º F for 15 seconds. It’s a bit more complex than that, with modern equipment testing and identifying bacteria while milk is being processed, but that’s the basic gist of it.
Before you jump to conclusion that surely, unpasteurized means less processed and thus better, know this: it is done in order to destroy or reduce pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses. Raw milk can be contaminated by pathogens spreading through feces, soil (under cow’s udder), water, sores, or even from the hands of the dairy farmer. Bacteria such as cioxiella burnetii, brucella, e.coli, salmonella, listeria, yersinia, campylobacter, and others can be greatly reduced or killed altogether through pasteurization.
Pasteurization is very minimal processing that is done for safety and its benefits typically outweigh the risks. Elderly, pregnant, and those with weaker immune systems have the most likelihood of getting a foodborne illness from raw milk and milk products. There are several caveats about pasteurization, however.
Unpasteurized Milk (Raw Milk)
Well, you guessed it, unpasteurized refers to a product that has not gone through the process of heat or radiation treatment. Unpasteurized milk is simply raw milk that has not been heated. So are there any benefits to say unpasteurized milk? A hundred years ago, through subpar sanitation, refrigeration, and wildly spreading tuberculosis, milk was contributing to deaths of many milk drinkers. Along came a fella named Louis Pasteur who invented a method that we use today – called pasteurization. His goal wasn’t to save the life of milk drinkers, rather than to kill the damned bacteria that was causing his beer and wine to spoil and turn sour. He found that merely heating a wine to 50-60 degrees celsius for a short time was enough to kill the microbes. It also allowed wine to be aged without reducing its quality. About 50 years later, when an estimated 65,000 people died from TB contracted by consuming raw milk, U.S. government started mandatory dairy pasteurization laws for interstate commerce.
Problems with pasteurization
Some claim that pasteurizing milk is no longer necessary due to safer practices and that treating milk could be more harmful than helpful. They also claim that when the industry grew and raised its safety standards and we moved further from our food supply, pasteurization became more of a mechanism to extend shelf life for transportation rather than for safety reasons. Organic farms may ultra-pasteurize their milk (which extends shelf-life from 2-3 weeks to 2-3 months) because of the fact that there are fewer farms with more distance to cover. So in turn, those buying organic milk may benefit from safer practices (no antibiotics, grass-fed cows, etc) but may actually get milk that has been more processed.
It’s a fact that during the heat treatment of pasteurization some vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and good (probiotic) bacteria are destroyed as well. But these numbers are not as significant as some portray them to be.
Calcium, Phosphorus -> decrease by 5%
Thiamine (B1), Vitamin B12 -> decrease by 10%
Vitamin C -> decrease by 20%
These numbers are not nutritionally significant. They also may vary depending on the specifics of the pasteurization process. The more time and heat is involved the more benefits are lost and vice versa.
Benefits vs Risk
According to CDC, between the years 1998 and 2011, about 79% of the dairy-related outbreaks were caused by cheese or raw milk products. 148 outbreaks and 2,384 illnesses were reported during that time. 284 required hospitalizations and 2 deaths were caused by cheese or raw milk products. So while the numbers are quite small (compared to the amount that people consume raw milk daily), there are risks. Geography, species of cow, soil quality, feed quality, and more factors play into the nutritional quality of milk and also its risks.
At a federal level, the FDA currently forbids the sale or distribution of raw milk. However, 13 states allow the sale of raw milk in their retail stores. Another 17 states allow the sale of raw milk on the actual farm that the milk was produced. 8 other states allow raw milk to be obtained through other (cow-share) agreements. So in reality, only 20 states completely prohibit raw milk for our consumption.
There is conflicting information when it comes to the question if drinking raw milk improves symptoms usually experienced by those drinking pasteurized milk, which can include flatulence, diarrhea, audible bowel sounds, and abdominal cramps. A study in 2014 showed that switching to raw milk did not reduce the symptoms. However, critics of that study say that more time was needed for the body to adapt to new bacteria. A survey conducted by an organization that promotes traditional practices of food did indicate that they found 81% of raw milk drinkers in Michigan not experiencing any of the symptoms after switching to raw milk.
As of now, there are no conclusive studies to support the benefits of raw milk. So although minimal, the risks currently still outweigh the benefits of drinking raw milk.
Fda also boldly states that raw milk does not help with allergies, improve your immune system, cure lactose intolerance, prevent osteoporosis, improve gastrointestinal health, is not nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk. You can view their full examination with references here.
But the more important thing to keep in mind is that it’s best to ditch cow’s milk altogether. 65% of the world’s population has a reduced ability to properly digest lactose after infancy. Cow’s milk was formulated for calves, not humans. With so many alternative forms of milk, there are certainly much healthier options out there.
So now that you know what pasteurized and unpasteurized mean, what about pasture-raised? A pasture is just land that’s covered with grass and other low-growing plants that’s appropriate for grazing animals like sheep or cattle. So pasture-raised refers to the fact that the animals which the products come from were given access to the pasture year-round. The specifics may differ depending on the label but that’s the basics.
For example, to have the “certified humane” label, here are the requirements for pasture-raised:
HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated. The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to very inclement weather. All additional standards must be met.
Organic valley defines pasture-raised as:
Pasture-raised animals receive a significant portion of their nutrition from organically managed pasture and stored dried forages. Unlike 100% grass-fed cows, pasture-raised cows may receive supplemental organic grains, both during the grazing season and into winter months. Our co-op wide pasture requirements specify that all cows must have a minimum of 120 days on pasture during the grazing season, and they must have outdoor access to pasture year-round. They may be brought indoors because of severe weather and for the daily milking.
Having this access and open space is critical to animal health as very often farm animals suffer from overcrowding which leads to fighting, disease and potential outbreaks. For eggs, pasture-raised is your healthiest option.
Krauss, W. E., Erb, J. H. and Washburn, R.G., "Studies on the nutritive value of milk, II. The effect of pasteurization on some of the nutritive properties of milk," Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 518, page 30, January, 1933.