MILK USED to be a largely monolithic entity. Milk was milk. Then it became skimmed, light, soy, almond or oat. You can add ‘raw’ to that list, though, in fact, it was the precursor to all the milks that followed.

Before pasteurisation raw milk was consumed for centuries in its natural state, sans processing. We began pasteurising milk in the early 1900s to combat bovine (cow) tuberculosis and it has been standard practice in Australia since the ’50s.

It’s illegal to sell raw milk as a food in Australia, however, it’s recently seen a resurgence in popularity among influencers on TikTok and YouTube and even among aristocrats – The Guardian reports that Tom Parker Bowles is a fan. 

Of course, raw food diets in general are not new, nor is the belief that heat destroys nutrients. With a widespread backlash against highly processed foods, a swing back the other way to consuming foods in their natural state is attractive to many people. Raw milk videos on TikTok have garnered over 126 million views, with many #rawmilk advocates, such as Paul Saladino and debunked “CEO of ancestral lifestyle” the Liver King, also proponents of raw meat. The problem in the case of milk and meat, as opposed to eating raw vegetables, for example, is food safety.

Despite, well, science, advocates are making comparisons to the myriad benefits of breast milk while touting raw milk’s nutrient-dense pay load and potential to alleviate allergies and lactose intolerance.

So, is there any merit to claims about raw milk’s health benefits? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

What is raw milk?

It’s milk that hasn’t been pasteurised or homogenised. It doesn’t necessarily come from cows – you can get raw goat’s, sheep or camel’s milk.

What does pasteurisation do?

Nukes it – the process involves heating milk to remove bacteria. In Australia, milk must be heated to 72°C for 15 seconds or 140°C for 2 seconds for Ultra Heat Treatment (UHT) or long-life milk. Homogenisation, meanwhile, involves pressurising milk to disperse milk ‘globules’ or fatty acids more evenly.

Does pasteurisation reduce milk’s nutritional value?

No. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Food Protection of 40 studies found levels of vitamins B1, B6, B9, B12, and C were largely unaffected by pasteurisation. “The effect of pasteurisation on milk’s nutritive value was minimal because many of these vitamins are naturally found in relatively low levels,” the researchers said.

Similarly, a study published in the American Journal of Food Technology found no significant differences in major nutrients or fatty acids among raw, pasteurised and UHT milk.

What about protein?

According to a study in the Journal of Nutrition of 25 people who drank either raw, pasteurised or UHT milk for a week, proteins from pasteurised milk were processed as effectively by the body as those in raw milk. Interestingly, protein in UHT milk was the most easily absorbed.

Does raw milk protect against allergies and asthma?

A 2020 meta-analysis associated raw milk consumption in children with a lower rate of asthma and hay fever. The authors note that “Because of the minimal but real risk of life-threatening infections, however, consumption of raw milk and products thereof is strongly discouraged”. Medical website Healthline also notes that the study showed an associated risk reduction, not a direct correlation.  

Does it help lactose intolerance?

No. In a blind study, adults with lactose intolerance drank raw, pasteurised, or soy milk for three 8-day periods in randomised order. Result: “raw milk failed to reduce lactose malabsorption or lactose intolerance symptoms compared with pasteurised milk among adults positive for lactose malabsorption,” the researchers found.

What about anti-microbials? Does pasteurisation kill them?

Antimicrobials in milk, such as lactoferrin, immunoglobulin, lysozyme, lactoperoxidase help control harmful microbes and delay spoilage. Raw or pasteurised, these are reduced when milk is refrigerated.

Pasteurising milk reduces lactoperoxidase activity by around 30 per cent, while other antimicrobials remain mostly unchanged, reports Healthline.

So, what are the dangers?

Pasteurisation eliminates bacteria such as E coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter, Coxiella burnetti, Cryptosporidium, Yersinia enterocolitica, Staph aureus and Listeria monocytogenes. Symptoms of bacterial infection are predictably ghastly: vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, headaches, abdominal pain, nausea and fever.

Studies show that raw milk contains far higher quantities of harmful bacteria than pasteurised milk. Keeping milk refrigerated helps reduce bacteria, regardless of whether it’s raw or pasteurised.

Finally, a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases found raw milk or cheese causes 840 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalisations than pasteurised dairy in the US.

So, what’s the bottomline?

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) were approached for comment, issuing the following statement: “[FSANZ] has assessed the risks associated with raw drinking milk and concluded they were too great to consider changing or removing [Australia New Zealand Food Standards] Code requirements for milk to be pasteurised (or equivalently processed) to eliminate disease-causing bacteria that may be present. The consumption of unpasteurised dairy products can cause severe illness, particularly in vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, young children, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals”.

The rub: first and foremost, this is a safety issue rather than a nutritional one. Breast might be best. Direct from the teat probably isn’t.

Ben Jhoty covers sport and wellness for Esquire Australia.

Related: Why is no one talking about the Australian cricket team?