by Beth Heller, M.S.
I have a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and I still get a headache thinking about all the ways the food we eat can impact our health. Recently I’ve been reading about raw milk and the proposed benefits of drinking milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized.
The whole topic of dairy consumption and fertility is controversial. At the Moon we recommend women limit their dairy consumption to a single serving of full-fat organic dairy per day. Our recommendation stems from studies that suggest whole fat dairy may be protective against some forms of infertility (particularly ovulatory infertility) and due to reports that low-fat dairy consumption is linked to adolescent acne, certain reproductive cancers and other hormonally-linked conditions. In cases where food sensitivity is suspected we may recommend completely eliminating dairy, but only under the supervision of a dietitian.
But raw milk? We have to say it hasn’t really been on our radar. But there is a debate raging in our country about the safety and health benefits of consuming raw milk (milk that has not be pasteurized).
To understand the fuss a bit better we should take a quick look at two processes: pasteurization and homogenization. Raw, untreated milk from a cow’s udder is not the uniform white liquid we’re used to calling milk. Raw milk has two distinct components, a thin “watery” layer that contains a fair amount of protein and a thick creamy layer that rises to the top and, obviously, contains fat. Homogenization is the processing of milk into a uniform smooth consistency. Pasteurization is a process where raw milk is heated to very high temperatures in order to kill any pathogens that may be present in the milk.
Opponents of pasteurization note that the process kills more than just pathogens, it also destroys enzymes in milk that improve the digestion of important nutrients and may aggravate milk allergy. Similarly, the processes of pasteurization and homogenization creates smaller milk fat globules that have a different chemical make-up than found in raw milk. These globules have a higher level of protein, which raw milk advocates suggest may aggravate milk allergies and lactose intolerance.
So how much of this is real? Research does bear out that homogenization changes the chemical make-up of the fat globules, but double-blind studies have not yet shown that raw milk and better tolerated or less allergenic or that the consumption of homogenized/pasteurized milk leads to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer than the consumption of raw milk. Currently the sale of raw milk is highly regulated. It’s illegal to transport raw milk across state lines for sale, and the federal government is threatening to crack down on the sale of raw milk on a national level. The primary concern on the part of regulators is the prevalence of food-born pathogens. According to the FDA raw milk is no elixer, it’s a potential stew of ecoli, salmonella and listeria bacteria.
So what’s the upshot? Well, in the process, no pun intended, of looking into processed dairy we learned a few things:
1. Raw milk is not a good risk for someone who is trying to conceive for the same reason that pregnant women are advised to avoid lunch meats and raw cheeses. The bacteria that tends to be present in these foods can cause serious health and pregnancy complications. It simply ain’t worth the risk until there is greater regulation and testing of raw milk products.
2. We did learn that some dairies are beginning to use “small vat low temperature pasteurization” methods and this excites us. Interestingly, our local dairy here in Illinois, Oberweis, uses a low-temperature method which may preserve the nutrients and enzymes in the milk while killing pathogens. Interestingly, Oberweis claims that most organic milks are high-temp pasteurized, which a quick (but by no means completely comprehensive) internet search seemed to support.
3. Regarding homogenization, we have to admit we’re slightly seduced by the argument that keeping milk in its natural state with the cream rising to the top is appealing. As part of my blog research I went out and purchase some small-batch, low temp pasteurized whole milk and drank a glass along with a chocolate chip cookie. I for one enjoyed the cream globs but when I told my business partner Tami about she was grossed out. Homogenization is more than anything a matter of personal preference.
So, our take-home is that raw milk is not your best choice for fertility. We have always recommended milk from grass-fed cows that have not been treated with added hormones. The benefits milk from grass-fed cows include better fat, including CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which may have anti-cancer properties. As always we encourage consuming minimally-processed foods so the idea of low-temp pasteurization is appealing as is (at least for me) allowing the cream to rise to the top in my milk bottles.
As would be expected, “boutique” milks come with a price tag and may take some searching to find. Until there is more research into health benefits or health risks of homogenization and pasteurization we cannot say that such products are a “must-do” for fertility.