By Anna Sachse
To pasteurize or not to pasteurize; that is the question. Pasteurization is a process named after scientist Louis Pasteur which uses the application of heat to destroy human pathogens in foods. This process can be done to juices, beers, wines, vinegars, soy sauce, eggs and almonds, but most people, when they think about it, think about it as related to dairy products. Unless you are going out of your way to purchase raw milk from a local farmer, the milk you drink is definitely pasteurized, as is most of the cheese you consume (exceptions are always clearly labeled and are only found in fancy cheese sections). But there are quite a few people—most notably in a country called France—who refuse to believe that pasteurization is necessary. Does the process protect you from harm, or does it harm you in the process? Let’s explore.
According to the International Dairy Foods Association, when it comes to the dairy industry, pasteurization is the process of heating every particle of a milk product in special equipment, to a variety of temperatures (from 145° F to 280° F) for .01 seconds to over 30 minutes, depending on the type of pasteurization. The most common method used in the US is High Temperature Short Time pasteurization, which uses metal plates and hot water to raise milk temperatures to at least 161° F for at least 15 seconds, followed by rapid cooling. Another method, aseptic processing, involves heating the milk using commercially sterile equipment and pouring it under aseptic conditions into hermetically-sealed packaging—these products are then considered “shelf stable” and do not need refrigeration until opened.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not a fan of going raw. Whether your milk comes from cows, sheep or goats, if it’s unpasteurized it can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, which are responsible for causing foodborne illnesses, says the FDA. This bacteria can be especially dangerous for pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. The FDA states that research shows no meaningful difference in the nutritional values of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, and that pasteurizing milk doesn’t cause a greater incidence of lactose intolerance.
States are allowed to make their own laws regarding the consumption of raw milk; however, in 1987, the FDA banned the sale of raw milk for human consumption across state lines. These days just over half of US states allow the sale of raw milk, but a constant debate still rages, with some states trying to limit the sales and some trying to expand it. In California, dairies recently sued to overturn a new law that sharply restricts the amount of bacteria that can be present in raw milk products.
The deal is that true raw milk cheeses are considered better. When a rumor passed through France in the early 1990s that all dairy would have to be pasteurized, the people freaked out, signed petitions and made a stink in the media, claiming that raw milk cheese was an essential part of their culture. Pasteurization mutes the flavor-producing enzymes in milk that contribute to a cheese’s character, both in taste and texture. And why give up good taste for no good reason? As a cheese ages, its acid and salt also help to destroy pathogens. It’s interesting that despite the panic-laden warnings from the FDA and CDC, we never hear about raw milk tragedies taking place in France. Proponents of raw milk, including some doctors, claim numerous health benefits, including more nutrients, help with gastrointestinal problems, clear skin, improved asthma and more, due to beneficial microorganisms that are killed off by pasteurization.
Basically it comes down to, as always, deciding for yourself. But no matter what you decide, keep in mind that symptoms of foodborne illness include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, headache and body ache. And trust me, you’ll know something’s wrong when you are sitting on the toilet with diarrhea and barfing between your legs. Enjoy that cheese!