Keep raw milk out of your diet, unless you want a side of deadly bacteria to go with it.

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With so much curiosity about organic, natural and environmentally friendly practices, it's easy to see why there's growing interest in raw milk. Milk straight from the cow, or with very little processing between the dairy farmer and the consumer, sounds like a great product. After all, milk is a wholesome food that's been helping feed people for at least 5,000 years [source: Zuk]. So, why would there be a problem drinking it fresh and unpasteurized?

Understanding Pasteurization

Most of the milk sold in the United States is pasteurized. This goes for milk products, too, like cheese, ice cream and yogurt. Pasteurization kills any bacteria present in milk by heating raw milk to a specific temperature for a prescribed period of time. This process, developed in 1864 by Louis Pasteur and named for him, helps reduce the threat of many foodborne illnesses, like tuberculosis and typhoid fever. There are lots of nasty bacteria that can live in raw milk, like Salmonella, Listeria, Brucella, Streptococcus pyogenes, Campylobacter, and Mycobacterium bovis. They'll make you very sick, and infections can even become life-threatening.

Even though pasteurization protects consumers from many of the health risks of drinking milk and eating other dairy products, there's still a persistent belief that it has a negative impact on milk's taste and nutritional value [source: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services].

Separating the Facts from the Myths

Making dairy safer through pasteurization has helped protect food supplies in the United States since around 1950, and there's no evidence supporting claims that it has a negative effect on the nutritional value of milk or milk products. All types of milk should be pasteurized, even milk from sheep and goats that's destined for cheese or yogurt.

To help counter some of the more spectacular claims for drinking raw milk, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have published these no-nonsense rumor busters:

  • Raw milk does not have a natural resistance to bacteria.
  • Pasteurization does not cause lactose intolerance.
  • Both pasteurized and raw milk can cause allergic reactions.
  • There's no proven health benefit associated with drinking raw milk. Claims that raw milk can cure asthma, allergies and other conditions are inaccurate.
  • Pasteurization does not negatively impact the nutritional value of milk.

Keeping Yourself Safe

There are no federal laws mandating that milk sold in the United States be pasteurized, and it's legal to sell raw milk in some states. Because it's left to the states to regulate milk safety, use caution when purchasing milk products when you travel or if you know raw milk is available where you live. Children, people with weak immune systems, the elderly and pregnant women are at increased risk from ingesting unpasteurized milk or milk products. Between 1998 and 2006, more than 1,505 cases involving illness caused by ingesting raw milk were reported to the CDC. They resulted in two deaths and 185 hospitalizations [source: CDC].

Always check for the word "pasteurized" on milk products before you buy. Read product information carefully, and consult your retailer if you have any doubts about an item that isn't clearly labeled. Raw milk is often sold at farmers' markets and health food stores, so use caution when purchasing dairy products from these locations.