Is Raw Milk Easier to Digest Than Pasteurized Milk?

Raw milk from Healthyway DairyYou have probably heard about a recent study 1 from Stanford University that compared digestion of raw milk to the digestion of pasteurized milk among a small group of people who had been determined to be lactose intolerant.  The study was published in the March/April issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.  There was much media fanfare touting the failures of raw milk to overcome lactose intolerance.  Headlines included Study: Raw milk no help for lactose intolerance, Raw Milk Doesn’t Help Lactose Intolerance, Study Shows, Is Lactose Intolerance Relieved By Raw Milk? Scientists Find These Claims Untrue. As far as I know this is the first and only serious study to compare the digestibility of raw milk to pasteurized and soy milks. Let’s look at what we can learn from the study.

Study Results

The study was conducted by researchers at Stanford University. This is the study’s stated conclusion:

Raw milk failed to reduce lactose malabsorption or lactose intolerance symptoms compared with pasteurized milk among adults positive for lactose malabsorption. These results do not support widespread anecdotal claims that raw milk reduces the symptoms of lactose intolerance. 1

The study does not appear to be biased in favor of pasteurized milk because at least two of the study’s sponsors–the Weston A. Price Foundation and the Raw Milk Institute–certainly were expecting and hoping for a different result.  One of the study’s authors did say that “When I heard that claim it didn’t make sense to me because, regardless of the bacteria, raw milk and pasteurized milk have the same amount of lactose in them . . .” 2

As with most studies, it can be difficult to account for all variables and to find a sample size large enough to produce a definitive result. This study is no exception.  There are several problems that might have caused misleading results.

Study Size

The number of study participants was very small–only sixteen people were selected out of a pool of 440 applicants. The sixteen were chosen based on the results of hydrogen (H2) breath testing.  Although it is the preferred method of testing for lactose intolerance, 3 there are several conditions that can produce incorrect results.

As noted by Mark McAfee, chairman of the board at the Raw Milk Institute, “The study actually shows that the H2 breath test is insufficient to diagnose milk sugar digestion problems in 97 percent of the study applicants. Most people are not overtly lactose intolerant but are better described as pasteurization intolerant, something for which medical science may not have an appropriate test.” 4

Notice that the study rejected 97% of the applicants who thought they had problems digesting milk.  The preferred test may not be adequate for determining difficulty in digesting pasteurized milk.

Hydrogen (H2) Breath Test

The breath test used to select participants is “based on the fact that there is no source for hydrogen gas in humans other than bacterial metabolism of carbohydrates.”  To be accurate the tests “are performed in the fasting state after at least one day of a low fibre diet.” 5

However, the test can produce incorrect results under several conditions:

The hydrogen breath test depends on the presence of hydrogen producing bacteria. However, a considerable proportion of non‐hydrogen producing bacteria, which can yield false negative results, has been observed in some but not all studies. Several other potential sources of error exist, such as carbohydrate malabsorption in chronic pancreatitis and coeliac disease, with false positive tests for SIBO [small intestinal bacterial overgrowth] due to colonic fermentation and gas production, and gastrointestinal motor disorders, where delayed gastric emptying may cause false negative tests and rapid transit through the small bowel will produce false positive breath tests. False positive results may also be due to the oral bacterial flora and if the subject has failed to adhere to a low fibre diet the day before the test. 5

Soy Milk Control

Another problem with the study may be in the use of soy milk as a control, since soy can be difficult to digest.  Unfermented soy foods, including soy milk, contain “powerful protease inhibitors that inhibit our digestive enzymes and overwork the pancreas.” These inhibitors make it difficult for the body to break down soy protein, causing bloating, indigestion, and even constipation. 6 With the known problems digesting unfermented soy, it is difficult to accept the validity of the study when the following results are found:

By day 7 of drinking, lactose intolerance symptoms were equally as severe, whether raw milk or pasteurized milk was consumed. The symptoms reported by people who had consumed either the raw or pasteurized milk were significantly worse than the symptoms reported by the patients who drank soy milk.1 [emphasis added]

Length of Study

Improvements or other changes to digestion may not be discovered in the short period of time this study was conducted. The study consisted of a crossover trial of three periods of eight days each. Each of three groups were randomly given raw milk, pasteurized milk, or soy milk for eight days then switched to another milk, etc. Improvement in beneficial gut bacteria which might result from drinking milk raw probably takes longer than 8 days to become apparent. 4

My Conclusion

The study is interesting and certainly worth additional investigation; however, there are too many unanswered questions and too much room for error to accept these results at face value. Even the study authors admitted that the short period of time and limited number of participants were limitations. 7

With 97% of study applicants rejected, maybe problems digesting pasteurized milk encompass far more than simply lactose intolerance, as suggested by Mark McAfee.  Maybe the H2 breath test isn’t adequate for determining study participants.

In the end, if no further studies are undertaken, you may be the best, and only, judge of whether raw milk is easier for you to digest.  You can try drinking raw milk, starting with a small amount.  If tolerated, you may increase the amount gradually.  I did not grow up drinking raw milk, but I have been drinking it now for over eight years and thoroughly enjoying it. I have had no problems digesting raw milk, but then I did not have problems with the digestion of pasteurized milk either. I just didn’t like the taste of processed milk. Now I enjoy drinking milk again!

Sources

1 Effect of Raw Milk on Lactose Intolerance: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study, Annals of Family Medicine, by Sarah Mummah, MPhil, Beibei Oelrich, MD, PhD, Jessica Hope, MSN, NP, Quyen Vu, BAH and Christopher D. Gardner, PhD
2 Claim that raw milk reduces lactose intolerance doesn’t pass smell test, study finds, Stanford School of Medicine
3 Lactose tolerance tests, MedlinePlus
4 Stanford Study on Raw Milk Digestibility: Conflicting Interpretations, the Weston A. Price Foundation
5 Use and abuse of hydrogen breath tests, International Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology
6 The Whole Soy Story by Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN
7 Raw Milk Not Better for Lactose Intolerance, Daily Rx

This post is shared on Fight Back Friday @FoodRenegade.

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21 Responses to Is Raw Milk Easier to Digest Than Pasteurized Milk?

  1. Mike says:

    Raw milk

  2. Gigi Greene says:

    I’d also point out that they used sugar-free vanilla syrup to flavor the milks to mask the different tastes of the varieties – not sure what was in it, but I’ve never met a non-caloric sweetener that agreed with my gut.

  3. Thomas says:

    Well, isn’t it true that it takes weeks to build the microbial flora in your digestive tract to handle RAW milk, but once it’s established it aids in the digestion and absorption. While pasteurized milk doesn’t have the microbial flora and therefor, once lactose intolerant …you STAY Lactose intolerant.

    • I don’t know if there is an adjustment time to be able to digest raw milk. I started drinking it by the cupful right away, but I got my start with raw goat milk kefir, which I used in smoothies. I now drink raw cow milk from Guernsey and Jersey cows plus my goat milk kefir smoothies. I’ve never had any digestive issues with any raw milk.

  4. Amy A says:

    I know that I’m lactose intolerant but can handle raw milk with no problem.

  5. mey says:

    I started having problems when drinking milk about 15 years ago. I assumed I was lactose intolerant and started drinking the so called “lactose free”milk. Things seemed better with that and I just went on with it and that assumption.
    A few years later however, I moved to a small rural community where I couldn’t find “lactose free” milk. During a craving for milk I decided to buy raw milk at the market place and deal with the consequences of my lactose intolerance and my craving later.

    To my surprise though, there were no consequences. No heaviness, no bloating or anything else. After trying it a few times I told my mom, who suffered from the same symptoms I did with milk, and she decided to try it too. She looked for a farm where she could get raw milk and she had the same results. Ever since, I will try to find raw milk and just use that when I can or feel like having milk.

    This, of course, wasn’t a scientific experiment nor did I have many more subjects to study, but my personal conclusion was that I wasn’t lactose intolerant. I was possibly intolerant to part of the process of pasteurization, or whatever vitamins and things that may be added to milk now, or something along those lines.

    Later on I heard a similar story from someone else and somewhere else in the world and I was quite pleased to have a confirmation to my story.

    As said earlier, I did not conduct a scientific experiment, but I did have that experience. I imagine that there are people who are truly lactose intolerant with whom it won’t matter if the milk is raw or pasteurized, if it has lactose it will affect them.
    However I believe that there are some of us, whose milk problem is not related to the lactose in it.

    On a side note, if you would try the experiment mentioned above with me and you would give me soy milk I would end up with worse off than with pasteurized or processed milk itself. Soy milk does not sit well with me at all….

    • Drinking soy milk can’t be better than raw cow or goat milk. I was disturbed that it was used as a control and unbelieving that the subjects had less indigestion from the soy milk than from the raw or pasteurized milk.

    • Kuret Sherman says:

      I know myself, I can handle raw milk easier than store bought, I have a nephew that was diagnosed as lactose intolerant at about age 14 and had terrible reactions to pasteurized milk, even baked goods with milk, now 22 he can drink all the raw milk he wants ,no side effects. I’m wondering how much of it is to do with the N1 protein present in commercial milk, the family cow is a Jersey

  6. Kuret Sherman says:

    pasteurization also alters some of the enzymes found naturally in milk that aide the digestion of it.

  7. Farmer Theo says:

    Yeah. There is “science by authority” which is heavily biased and controlled. More reliable for people is “science by repeatability”. This is the people’s science. As a lactose intolerant person, you hear that raw milk may be digestible. You try it. No problems. A friend repeats the experiment. Same result. More friends repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. Most have no problem with raw milk. That’s real science. The studies are only there to provide repeatable experiments with repeatable results for people. Otherwise they are worthless propaganda. If you live with a lactose intolerant person or are one, you know the truth. You can easily design a study that shows that raw milk does not cause the nasty inflammatory gut response mildly called “lactose intolerance” which is clearly caused by the destructive processes of homogenization and pasteurization.

  8. Xarta says:

    Sadly my experience is the complete opposite, I never had issues drinking store bought milk but after reading articles here and there I decided to take the step and look for raw milk, it gives me a very bad diarrhea depending on the amount of milk I drink, half a liter is enough to keep me bloated with gasses for more than 24 hours

    Any one had the same experience? This has been happening for long enough not to think that I have to adapt to it, it just feels worse than pasteurized milk

    • Sui says:

      I’m not an expert but had a similar experience. It took my body a few years to get used to rich food such as raw milk. The most considerate explanation I’ve heard made by medical personnel was that the body’s system might not be able to handle loads of bacteria no matter how good they were. Introducing new type of food, especially something rich in nutrients and other “good stuff” slowly so that the body has the time to adjust to the new input. One case I heard was someone taking lots of antibiotic medication, doing some kind of “cleanse” as this person believe was doing to herself, and she reacted violently to fresh milk. If you strongly believe you must make a switch to unpasteurized milk, I hope that you will listen to your body first and take your time. Good luck.

  9. giselle says:

    one must look at the work of Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride in her GAPS book – the answer is gut bacteria – a lack of this causes the lactose intolerance and unless that balance is re-adressed lactose intolerance will occur with both kinds of dairy milk – i would assume that the study cases had a very severe lack of correct gut bacteria and if they rebalanced that first and then tried ingesting the raw milk again, it would not have the same result …… would be interesting for a good probiotic manufacturer – like UDO’s – to find thsse 14 people, put them on a 3 month course and then retry the study – bet the results would be very interesting!!

  10. Sui says:

    It does not really matter any more to me if a “scientific study” proves or disproves the health benefit, when I for one, after several years (not after a mere week or two), realized that I could drink fresh milk without worrying about instant warning message from my body. I’m personally not the one to jump on any information about certain cures. Raw milk was readily available as a milking technician, and I chose fresh milk because it tasted better. Some said that working on the farm increased my exposure to various contamination (by dirt and bacteria?) that helped my immune system stronger. Other said raw milk had lots of beneficial elements that brought healing to my system. My body’s reaction took at least a few years. My reaction to “milk” was on and off during the past years since I started exclusively consuming unpasteurized milk. But I know definitely, in the recent months, that my body’s reaction to milk (which had been unmistakable because it used to happen within a few minutes to half an hour) was completely gone. I pushed myself and increased the sip of milk that I timidly took to a big gulp, and guess what? No reaction. My stomach has not made that unhappy growl for several months. The opinion based on my own experience is that cure of any sort, especially something as complex as guts, does not occur instantly. If the “scientific” observation was done over the years, and if I were the study subject, I would have been one of the positive results. If I were a subject in a study done over a period of several days, I would have definitely been one of the negative outcome.

  11. sparklyme says:

    Pasteurized milk actually causes me so much pain I can’t stand up straight so I never really drank it. Not sure if I am actually lactose intolerant but have been dealing with severe gut issues for years and when I was not able to tolerate much food at all I lived on mostly raw milk for two years. I have recently started making my own raw milk kefir and I love it so much I don’t even drink plain raw milk anymore, and it has tons of probiotics and almost no lactose.

  12. Chris Collins says:

    I was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder four years ago and very weak. I was also lactose intolerant since birth. With the first cup of raw milk, my whole body started to change, and after that, and since then, four years ago, I have had at least a cup of kefir mixed with a cup of milk every day. The strength has been unbelieveable and my blood numbers are all normal now. I absolutely love my raw milk, my farmer lady and the cream and butter. It has made all the difference.

  13. Chris Collins says:

    Oh, and the study? If they used sugarless or sugar free syrup, that means they used xylitol, or something like it, and that stuff goes thru folk like water. It is undigestible. Look it up. Body does not recognize it as a nutrient and just sends it thru. Amazing how folks like me, uneducated really, but dedicated to research can figger this out when scientists can’t. Poor study. Untrue results. Sad.

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