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The Dangers of Raw Milk: What You Should Know

Bacteria can cause serious illness

A person pouring milk from a pitcher into a glass

Some people prefer unpasteurized — or raw — milk and milk products, believing they offer more nutrients, cause fewer allergies and promote health.

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Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that unpasteurized milk is more likely than pasteurized milk to cause foodborne illness that can lead to hospitalization.

“A little processing goes a long way in preventing the illnesses associated with raw milk,” says Erin Rossi, RD, LD. “Pasteurizing milk — heating it to 161 degrees for just 20 seconds — kills any and all bacteria.”

It’s been more than 120 years since Louis Pasteur came up with this fail-safe process for killing the bacteria raw milk can harbor, including Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.

Who’s most at risk of illness

Most healthy people recover quickly from the vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and flu-like symptoms these bacteria cause.

But older people, children, pregnant people and those with weak immune systems can quickly get very sick. Symptoms can become chronic, severe and even life-threatening.

Seek care promptly if you become ill after consuming a raw milk product— especially if you’re pregnant. Listeria can cause miscarriage and fetal or newborn death.

Products to check carefully

Most U.S. milk and milk products contain pasteurized milk or cream or were processed in a way that destroys bacteria. But you can still find products made with raw milk, including:

So, take a minute to read a product’s label to make sure you see the word “pasteurized.” If it’s not there, the product may contain raw milk.

Take special care with milk products sold at farm stands or farmer’s markets. Don’t buy them unless you can confirm they’ve been pasteurized.

Facts to remember

Myths persist about pasteurization and raw milk. Here are the facts:

  • Pasteurization does not reduce the nutrients in milk. “The nutritional value is the same for all milk across the board, except that pasteurized milk does not carry the risk of bacteria,” notes Rossi.
  • Both raw and pasteurized milk contain proteins that trigger allergic reactions or lactose intolerance in those who are sensitive.
  • Pasteurization does not make it safe to leave milk unrefrigerated (especially when opened) for long periods of time.
  • Pasteurization does save lives.

Protect your family

Milk is a family staple for good reason. The calcium it contains helps build strong bones and teeth while keeping your heart beating, blood clotting and muscles and nerves functioning. The protein it provides helps strengthen muscles and prevents their breakdown.

“Our food supply is among the safest in the world, but it’s not always risk-free,” says Rossi. “Foodborne illnesses are preventable with proper handling and processing — including pasteurization, which minimizes risks while preserving vital nutrients.”

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