In the raw: Question marks over milk

Unpasteurised milk is the latest superfood – nutritious, delicious and packed with friendly bacteria. But is it safe? By Anastasia Stephens reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Prince Charles has been a fan for years. Now the health-conscious tribes of LA and New York are claiming that it can help everything from childhood allergies and eczema to digestive disorders. Raw, unpasteurised milk, straight from the cow, is making a comeback – and it's starting to catch on over here.

Indeed, UK producers report that demand for the "real" white stuff is stronger than ever, and growing. Sold in "green label" bottles from farms and farmers' markets, popularity is spreading fast, mostly through personal recommendation.

At the Chelsea Farmers Market, raw milk is one of the most popular dairy products. And at Meadow Cottage Farm, a Surrey supplier, demand is outstripping supply. "We sell 50 litres a day but customer demand just seems to keep growing," says Celia Haynes of Meadow Cottage, which specialises in unpasteurised milk and cream produced by the family's herd of Jersey cows. "We don't just get local customers coming to the farm – people travel for miles, and buy in bulk. Unpasteurised milk has a rich but refreshing flavour which adults and children seem to love."

It's not just about the taste, though. One study published in The Internet Journal of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology found that raw milk reduced children's risk of suffering allergy-related conditions by up to 40 per cent. There are overall nutritional benefits, too. Proponents say that unpasteurised milk is so packed with nutrients that it's a virtual superfood. Unlike heat-treated milk, it is full of beneficial gut bacteria, known to improve digestion and immunity. Raw milk contains a full complement of folic acid, B vitamins, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that are partially or completely destroyed in pasteurisation. Raw milk drinkers also benefit from digestive enzymes, as well as something called Wulzen factor, a compound that combats arthritis and arterial stiffening. Some people with a history of digestive tract problems such as Crohn's disease swear by the curative powers of unpasteurised milk; others praise its nutritional value and its ability to strengthen the immune system.

Proponents of raw milk argue that pasteurisation, a process in which milk is heated to 71C for short bursts followed by rapid cooling, destroys much of the nutrition in milk. For example, pasteurisation breaks down lactase, an enzyme that helps digest the milk-sugar lactose, meaning that lactose-intolerant individuals can drink raw milk but not pasteurised milk. Raw milk supporters also argue that pasteurisation renders calcium more difficult for the body to absorb. Meanwhile, the widespread process of homogenisation, in which the milk fat is evenly distributed throughout the liquid, can make the drink harder to digest.

The product remains controversial, though. It is potentially a source of food- poisoning bugs such as salmonella, listeria and E.coli. In Britain, the Food Standards Agency says tests on raw milk show that it can contain illness-causing pathogens. Scotland banned it 20 years ago; in England and Wales, sales are restricted to farmer's markets or directly from farm shops, with labels clearly warning of the risk.

"Pasteurisation is there as a safety net to kill off any bugs in milk," says Lisa Miles of the British Nutrition Foundation. "Without it, the risks would be just too great."

But the farmers who make it say that their raw milk is made to a strict standard. John Barron, of Beaconshill Farm in Herefordshire, points out that stringent regulations to ensure the safety of raw milk tend to mean that the cows are significantly healthier than those on commercial farms. "The simple fact is, we've never had a single case of food poisoning," he says.

Celia Haynes agrees. "We undergo four spot-checks a year, looking at the health and cleanliness of our animals," she says. "The milk itself has to undergo checks for levels of harmful bacteria to ensure it is safe. Think about it: healthier cows mean healthier milk."

The research has certainly been promising so far. Prompted by figures showing that children growing up on farms are less likely to develop allergies, scientists at the University of London gave children a couple of glasses of raw milk a week. They found that it seemed to cut their chances of developing hay fever by 10 per cent and eczema by 38 per cent. They also looked at blood samples from 4,700 primary-school children in Shropshire, and found that raw milk drinkers, most of whom lived on farms, had 60 per cent lower levels of immunoglobulin E – an antibody that the body's immune system pumps out in huge quantities on exposure to an allergen. Levels of histamine, another chemical that is released by cells during an allergic reaction, were halved.

These findings aren't news to raw milk producers: their customers report real improvements to their children's skin and respiratory health. "Our customers are convinced the milk is good for their health," says Barron. "Many have reported improvements to allergy symptoms in themselves or their children while drinking unpasteurised milk. Others have found that bloating and other digestive difficulties have settled down."

Sam Jennings, 42, a schoolteacher from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, had his first taste of unpasteurised milk on holiday in the Channel Islands four years ago. "It was so delicious, we tracked down a local producer when we came home. It is really thirst quenching and pleasant, so we switched to it.

"Then we noticed a surprising change in our seven-year-old son. His lungs were often tight and wheezy. But after a few days of drinking the new milk, his breathing got better; his symptoms had pretty much disappeared. We are convinced the benefit came from the milk. On the occasions we've run out of it and gone back to the commercial variety, his wheezing has returned."

None the less, Lisa Miles warns that those who drink raw milk should be careful. "I'd advise pregnant women to steer clear, as should elderly people or those with weak immune systems," she says. "It may be popular and even healthy. But that doesn't necessarily mean its safe."

What's in raw milk

* According to the Campaign for Real Milk, a US-based organisation, raw milk contains 10 per cent more B vitamins and 25 per cent more vitamin C.

* Raw milk is rich in CLA, a "superfat" that helps promote weight loss and is alleged to have anti-cancer properties.

* Unlike pasteurised milk, raw milk contains the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the milk-sugar lactose. This means that it can be drunk by people who are lactose-intolerant.

* Raw milk generally contains more omega-3 fats, and as they're not corrupted by heat treatment, they're better for you.

* It's a rich source of probiotic bacteria, which boost immunity and aid digestion.

* It may be richer in nutrients and vitamins overall, as animals are grass-fed and kept to high standards. As many producers are organic, the milk is more likely to be free of growth hormones and antibiotics.

* Raw milk is sold at farmers markets or direct from dairy farms (www.seedsofhealth.co.uk/resources/dairy). Raw goat's milk is available via mail order from Bevital.com (08707 879904), and in London from the Chelsea Farmers Market (020-7351 4321).

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