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Milk in the Raw

Every other Friday morning, I drive to a local dairy farm and wait in a long line of cars until a refrigerated white van rolls up and parks at the top of the driveway. The cars creep slowly forward, single file, as each person’s bi-weekly order of milk, cheese, and other farm-fresh dairy products – which we place, in advance of pickup, via an online spreadsheet-- is filled by the farmer himself. Customers include stay-at-home-moms and their kids, business people on their lunch breaks, athletes, health-enthusiasts – it’s a diverse crowd. But we’re all there for one reason. You think breast milk is the most coveted, controversial beverage in America today? Try raw cow’s milk. For many moms, it’s the natural successor to breast milk’s throne. For many other enthusiasts, it’s simply liquid gold.

I ended up in the Friday morning line routine for two reasons. One is that Kaspar, who’s slowly ‘outgrowing’ a bunch of his countless food allergies (which he’s had since, or since shortly after, birth) , could – six months ago – eat yogurt and kefir (both cultured dairy products), but milk, taken straight, gave him hives. Like, full body and face-hives, right away. Not the kind of reaction I was willing to mess around with, given our emergency-prone general circumstances. He drank hemp milk quite happily for many months as I wondered why cow’s milk was a problem for him when its cultured products seemed okay.

Then I tried to make yogurt -- which I’d done successfully many times before Kaspar was born -- from the ultra-pasteurized (that’s actually the technical term) organic milk sold in Texan grocery stores. It didn’t work. It just… remained... milk. With my foodie curiosity piqued, I did a bit of research around pasteurization, and in the process learned why Kaspar’s body was behaving badly upon ingesting pasteurized milk: pasteurization kills the enzymes and other mico-life within milk that helps the body break it down and assimilate it. Without that good active bacteria stuff, the body thinks the milk is a bad, foreign substance and launches an attack against it. This causes all sorts of weird, often chronic inflammation-related health issues in most people -- issues people seek treatment and medication for, but may not link directly to dairy consumption -- but for an already food-sensitive, hyper-immune-situation kiddo like Kaspar, it caused a more direct, immediate allergic response we could actually see.

Raw milk, on the other hand, remains intact, hosting all of those happy belly-boosters, and more. It’s been revered in Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine and science for centuries as a ‘sattvic’ food, which means it’s balancing and nourishing to the whole body, for everyone, whatever your body type (some foods, in contrast, are considered good for some body types and harmful to others). I’ve been interested in Ayurvedic medicine ( I recommend some good books on this here) since I landed upon it in investigating ways to address Kaspar’s nonstop eczema woes, and got hooked on its cool approach to cooking, and treating food as the primary tool for establishing and maintaining one's health. I've always loved cooking, so this captured my interest as a new outlet for my favorite hobby. We’ve seen incredible improvements in Kaspar’s skin since working with a pediatric Ayurvedic specialist , though, and I’ve also discovered some cool new approaches to food and eating which benefit our whole family. One of those great discoveries has been raw milk. Ayurveda and yogurt (and, fundamentally, Kaspar) happened to lead me there.

Kaspar has been able to drink the raw stuff from the get-go, hive free. His whole system’s improved so much in the past six months or so, too, that he’s even able to drink pasteurized milk now, as well; we don’t buy it for home, but it’s good in an on-the-go pinch. He’s also eating countless fruits and vegetables that used to cause a problem for him, now without the problems.There are a lot of moms out there who swear raw milk cured their kids of severe food allergies, and other serious ailments. (We didn't set out to make that happen -- I just got curious and wanted to give it a whirl.) Non-parents who love the stuff are equally enthused: proponents, as this recent New Yorker article on the subject states, profess raw milk “confers numerous health benefits—vitality, digestive vigor, strong teeth, clear skin—and even has the power to treat serious ailments, such as diabetes, cancer, and autism.”

The rest of that article’s really good, too. It’s not a big rah-rah (raw-raw?) milk fest, either; it presents both sides. And I'll be honest: when I read it, the other side gave me pause. Raw milk is a hotly debated, highly political issue, and its constituents on both sides are diametrically opposed. 

The FDA does not support the consumption of raw milk, at all. Hence the drug-run-esque white van/car-line scene we take part in, not to mention a nine-agency investigation-turned-infiltration of one of California’s biggest distributors (also in the New Yorker piece… read it!), and even raids on Amish and Mennonite milk farmers who supply the public-at-large. The FDA says raw milk has the potential to kill small children -- and this, of course, is a population many people buy the milk specifically for --and make others very, very ill, because it can harbor bacteria like salmonella and E. Coli (the same strain that “came to public attention in the nineties when four children died after eating contaminated meat at Jack in the Box,” says the New Yorker article… Though it should be noted that people who feed their kids raw milk would probably be the LAST in line for Jack in the Box. These are discerning eaters). Milk that’s pasteurized is altered so that it won’t support the microbial life of anything, harmful or helpful, so it can handle long distance shipping, and sit on shelves for months (and months) before purchase. Raw milk is a bit more delicate, and the FDA can’t as easily monitor its safety.

Pasteurization was developed in the mid-19th century when poor people drank milk from “swill dairies”— those cows were stabled next to distilleries, and fed “macerated grain left over from the production of whiskey.” (Again, the New Yorker Piece). These cows produced greater amounts of milk, temporarily, but (“confined to crowded, dirty pens”) became malnourished and sick. Lots of babies died as a result of all the nastiness. Sweeping pasteurization with government oversight fixed all that; no doubt, that was a good thing... in the 1850s. But cows aren’t hanging out in swill dairies these days, and this brings into question whether people should be able to choose whether their families’ milk is pasteurized or not, given the process’s downsides, and our overwhelmingly improved hygeinic standards here in 2012.

In many states, it’s illegal to buy or sell raw milk at all. In others, it’s illegal to transport it across state lines. In Texas, it can only be purchased directly from the farmer (I found ours by asking a raw cheese purveyor at our local greenmarket where he got his supply… he slipped me the number on a piece of ripped napkin). Our milk is constantly tested, on the farm, for harmful bacteria, and I know for a fact that the cows it comes from are well-loved and cared for to a point of perfection – if I’m ever reborn as a cow, may I be a member of that herd! – but reading about even the (very) few American kids who’ve fallen ill as a result of raw milk consumption in recent years -- never milk from our source, but still… -- did scare the sh*t out of me. I lay awake fearing I might harm my family, but by morning, my anxiety had passed; anything sick-baby related always scares me. But fewer than 200 cases of foodborne illness are attributed to raw milk each year, for babies and adults combined… compare THAT to Jack in the Box/fast food/or all of this. I’m okay with the raw milk statistics.

For me, I guess the proof is in the pudding. I’ve tried a lot of things I’d never seriously considered until western medicine fell short with my kid. We were told to wait out a food allergy and skin-condition situation that just wasn’t… live-able. So we followed trails of crumbs and hit upon many dead ends, but also some amazing, life-changing open vistas. Traditional Chinese Medicine worked. Ayurvedic medicine is working. One of these trails led us to raw milk. And, so far, so good. All of our approaches to helping Kaspar-bear get balanced largely focus on mending his gut (where most of the immune system resides). Raw milk is ideal for that. And, he loves it. The beauty of all of these alternative approaches is that it doesn’t feel a thing like ‘medicine’ as I once knew it. We’re not running back and forth to appointments, filling prescriptions, dealing with side effects, etc. We’ve been given our freedom back, not to mention our sleep, and our sanity. Kaspar is well. I’m not planning on feeding him a cashew any time soon, but I’m also confident at this point (and recent testing has proven this -- we do still work with a regular pediatrician and western allergists... we've got a good team assembled) that what we’re doing is really working; his allergy counts are coming down. His skin looks, and feels, So. Much. Better.

I’m glad to have an expanded understanding of food, the body, and how it all works together when it comes to caring for myself and my family. I’m glad I read ingredients on cleaning products' labels, and simply know about alternatives, or how to seek them out, in any sphere. Natural parenting has come about for me partly through necessity, but I really believe knowledge and choice are the most powerful means we have when it comes to keeping ourselves, and our families, well. Most of the kids playing on the grass alongside the milk-line every other Friday are perfectly healthy and robust — their parents choose to feed them raw milk not as a healing mechanism, per se, but certainly consciously, and certainly for its health benefits (which they believe, for better or worse, are real). In any case, if it weren’t for Kaspar’s hives, back in the day, Aaron and I would still be drinking ultra-pasteurized, albeit organic, milk that doesn’t do a thing for us beyond add a bit of body to our coffee. I’m grateful that our family’s path led us to something more all-around beneficial, not to mention completely delicious.

(On that note, as a foodie plug -- seriously, health debate notwithstanding -- raw milk tastes awesome. I make kefir, yogurt, and paneer from it, and they all taste sweet, slightly grassy, and straight-up amazing.)

For those of you who may want raw milk but can’t acquire it legally in your states, this article gives some good info on low-temp-pasteurization as a next-best-thing option. (Check out the first comment on that article, too… I love it when our elders get into online discussions!) 

Does your family drink raw milk? Had you even heard of it before now? Are you for or against it? Would you feed it to your kids, knowing the FDA's position on it? What are your thoughts?