I expect to take some flack for this, from both sides.
Milk is a mess. Talk about a heavily processed food that most people think of as wholesome. Luckily, fewer and fewer cows are treated to the artificial growth hormones rBGH/rBST to increase their milk production. However, cows are often kept in cramped conditions where they are fed feed that is likely laced with sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics.
This notion of cows roaming around an open-air pasture eating grasses and being milked is largely a fantasy.
Although there are a small handful of producers who make milk just like that. On my recent trip to Pennsylvania, I happened to find a half-gallon from Clover Creek Cheese Cellar. Except on the jug I noticed something unusual. It was the following block of text:
This product has not been pasteurized and may contain small amounts of harmful bacteria. The consumption of raw milk may increase the risk of illness to preschool-age children, older adults, pregnant women, and other people with weakened immune systems.
Naturally, I started calling this pure and pristine product, “Danger Milk.”
Beyond what happens to the cow before it is milked, conventional fluid dairy involves a lot more processing. Lots of milk are combined and skimmed. Whole milk isn’t exactly whole. If it were, it would contain varying levels of fat. But conventional whole milk, after being skimmed, has some of its fat put back in so that it’s the same batch after batch (about 4%). I’m not crazy about that.
The fat globules are broken down through the process of homogenization so they stay suspended and evenly distributed in the milk. I’m not crazy about that either. One crazy farmer suggests that it is homogenization and not milk fat per se that causes problems with people’s cardiovascular health.
To kill potentially harmful bacteria, the milk is pasteurized, which is a fancy way of saying cooked. And, well, when it comes to fluid dairy I kind of like pasteurization. Cheese is another story. Raw milk cheese all the way. Even the young ones.
The bottom line is there are some crazy delicious things that I’m willing to take a health risk on consuming when they come from a trusted source. Raw oysters, rare hamburgers, sushi, lamb tartare, etc. In truth, given the state of food today one is taking some degree of risk eating almost anything. And I’m more okay with that than you might imagine.
But milk? For me, it’s just not worth it.
Really what I want is glass bottles of organic milk from a small-scale dairy with pasture-raised cows that is un-homogenized and gently vat-pasteurized. But like I said, I’m not such a fan of milk that I’m out there searching for the one that is just right for me.
However, I’d never actually had raw milk before. Maybe I would try some and I would see what I had been missing all this time. Perhaps it would be a revelation. So I bought the Danger Milk from the health food store in Bedford, PA on a brisk December day, put it in the trunk and rushed it back to the refrigerator at the farm.
After dinner when my mother-in-law broke out the spread of desserts, I poured myself a glass of this forbidden beverage, making sure to keep it away from the young kids. It oddly felt like doing something naughty.
With my palate primed by chocolate cake, I was ready for my first sip of raw milk.
You know, it pretty much tasted like milk. I imagined that it tasted a little cleaner, and that it didn’t quite leave the same kind of residual fat on the palate. I liked it, but this raw milk didn’t blow me away. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I needed to be tasting this Danger Milk side by side with its conventional counterpart, a la The Pepsi Challenge. And as it turns out that was significantly more revealing.
Upon closer inspection the raw milk actually had a color. It was a more natural shade of white a few clicks down on the yellow side of the spectrum. There were also some visible fat globules on the surface. When tasting the two milks side-by-side a very distinct cooked flavor became apparent in the conventional milk. It was redolent of the smell of scalding milk for custard, plus the conventional milk was decidedly sweeter and one-dimensional.
I could easily see how someone who was accustomed to Danger Milk would have a hard time going back to supermarket milk. Still, my mind was unchanged. Yes, there’s a difference. Raw milk tastes better and the producers say it’s perfectly safe.
Now say what you will about the FDA being in the pocket of big agriculture. But what say you about the CDC? Because they remain unconvinced of its safety.
Still, one day when you are feeling especially healthy and want a thrill, you really should give raw milk a try. Just make sure to have some conventional whole milk on hand for the sake of comparison. One time is unlikely to send you to the hospital or put you in a coma. But you should check that your medical insurance is up to date, you know, to be on the safe side.