Raw milk is controversial and hard to come by, but it may be the best muscle-building beverage around.
By Matthew Solan
When John Welbourn was 14 he trained in his garage with George Zangas, then coach of the U.S. powerlifting team. Between reps and sets, Zangas preached to young John the power of real food. “He talked about the best diet for lifting: single-ingredient foods — fruits, vegetables, meat and raw milk,” says Welbourn. “This was way before anyone heard of the word Paleo.”
Always a big drinker of commercial milk, Welbourn did not follow his mentor’s advice about raw milk until 2004 as a right tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was getting injured more and recovery took longer. He needed to get bigger and stronger — and do it fast.
“I trained like a madman in the off-season, and I got back to real food, including, for the first time, raw milk,” he says. Welbourn often downed a half-gallon with his postworkout meals. The combo of hard work, real food and raw milk packed 30 pounds onto his 260-pound frame and pumped up his strength to new levels.
“I felt its natural probiotics improved my gut health so I could absorb more nutrients,” says Welbourn, who now runs CrossFit Football, a training program he launched in 2009. “And drinking it throughout the day helped get in the extra protein I needed for muscle growth.”
Raw milk means just that — milk in its natural form straight from the udder. No pasteurization. No additives. Just natural, rich, cream-like milk from mostly grass-fed cows.
However, this all-American beverage is swimming in controversy. Advocates swear by it. Others warn of its life-threatening dangers. It is even illegal to sell in some states where police have actually performed Prohibition-style raids on distributors. So is raw milk the real deal — or does it in fact get a raw one?
Real Versus Raw
The rub against raw milk is that it increases your risk for foodborne illnesses. The reason: Farms are dirty places. Despite the best efforts for cleanliness, raw milk can easily be contaminated with bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and listeria. This can come from cow feces, dirt and dust from processing equipment, infections on the cow’s udders, even human cross-contamination from soiled clothes.
Enter the need for pasteurization, a process that heats milk to high temperatures to kill bacteria. There are two main types: low temperature, long time (LTLT) and high temperature, short time (HTST). LTLT heats milk to 145 degrees for at least 30 minutes. HTST is more widely used. It heats milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds. HTST gives milk a longer shelf life — about 16 to 21 days from the date it was packaged. However, both processes remove close to 99.9 percent of bacteria.
Perhaps the best pasteurization is ultra-pasteurization, or ultra-high-temperature (UHT), which is used in Europe. Here, the milk is heated to a blistering 280 degrees for two to four seconds. This wipes out the most bacteria and can extend the shelf life to 60 to 90 days. Some U.S. dairy companies, especially organic milk producers like Organic Valley, offer UHT, but it is still not widely followed.
Another process tied to pasteurized milk is homogenization, a mechanical procedure wherein the fat globules are broken up and squeezed into small sizes to give milk a smooth consistency. This also lengthens shelf life. All raw milk is non-homogenized, so the fat eventually floats to the top and you have to shake it to mix up the fat.
Risk Versus Reward
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both frown on raw milk. Big time. Their websites are a bullhorn for the risks of drinking non-pasteurized milk. Yet the definition of “risk” can be relative.
By most estimates, the odds of getting ill from drinking raw milk is about 150 times greater than pasteurized milk, according to a CDC study. However, when compared with other foods, raw milk is not that scary. Of the 6,364 illnesses linked to dairy products in 2008 (cheese, milk, ice cream), unpasteurized dairy accounted for just 30 percent, says a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The CSPI also pointed out that seafood, produce, poultry, beef, eggs and pork all led to more illnesses than dairy.
You could also make the case that raw milk is produced under safer conditions than traditional dairy operations. “Pasteurization creates lazy farmers,” says certified sports nutritionist and former competitive Olympic lifter Tony Ricci, FISSN, CSCS, CDN. “They are not as diligent about farm contamination because pasteurization bails them out.”
Raw milk farmers do not have this safety net, so they need to be more attentive about quality control — from treatment of cows to soil maintenance. Most do their own regular on-site testing for pathogens. This is no guarantee of safety, of course, but since raw milk farmers work with smaller herds, they don’t have the same assembly-line mindset to milk production.
Milking the Benefits
But what can raw milk do for the guy seeking a nutritional edge? As the saying goes, milk does a body good. It’s an ideal beverage to boost mass and aid with recovery. Milk contains two high-quality proteins: casein and whey, which when combined amplify muscle protein synthesis. Research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that drinking postworkout milk produces more lean muscle mass than soy protein or carbohydrates among young weightlifters. And a 2011 study found chocolate milk superior to traditional carb-electrolyte beverages for exercise recovery.
Raw milk makes a strong case for preserving more of the nutrients you need. “High heat from pasteurization alters key enzymes like lactoferrin and lysosome, which play a major role in transferring protein,” Ricci says. “This breaks down whey protein and makes it tougher for the body to utilize.”
Other vital nutrients in milk also get chipped away during pasteurization. Between 25 and 50 percent of vitamin C gets wiped out, and up to 10 percent of vitamins like folic acid (B-9), thiamin (B-1), B-6 and B-12 are depleted during the heating process. Bodybuilders and strength athletes need all the B vitamins they can get, Ricci says. B-1 and B-6 increase energy production in cells by breaking down fats, sugars and proteins needed to fuel your workouts. B-9 and B-12 help repair and build muscle tissue. “Even losing out on a small amount of B vitamins is a disadvantage,” Ricci says.
While high temperatures are meant to protect you from harmful bacteria, they also kill off the good kind: probiotics. Raw milk is full of probiotics that can improve digestion, keep your gut healthy to increase nutrient absorption and strengthen your immune system. In fact, a 2007 study found that raw milk might help lower sensitivity to pollen allergies and protect against asthma attacks.
“The bottom line is that with pasteurization, a little of everything is taken away. It’s not that your regular milk is no good, but if you lose 10, 20, 30 percent of its full nutrients and drink a lot of milk, it becomes a cumulative loss,” Ricci says.
Some nutrients like calcium and vitamin D are added to regular milk after pasteurization. There is nothing wrong with this, but some experts feel this weakens the team effort of vitamins and minerals working together in their natural state. “When these nutrients are added they stand alone and do not carry the same impact they would as the complex compounded delivery system of raw milk,” says Tim Wightman, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation, which promotes consumer access to raw milk.
Then there is the issue of fat. Mention raw milk and some guys envision a tall glass of melted butter. Yet a cup of raw milk serves up just 9 grams of total fat (6 grams of saturated), which is slightly more than whole milk. (See “What’s in a Cup” for a full comparison.) Still, you should never fear fat, especially saturated, says Welbourn. “We have vilified saturated fat for so long that people think it’s more unhealthy than the other crap we tend to eat,” he says. You need some saturated fat in your diet. It contains cholesterol, which is a building block for producing testosterone, a must-have hormone for adding muscle mass. Saturated fat should make up about 10 percent of your daily calories, and raw milk is an easily measurable means to help hit that mark.
Raw milk by itself offers other superior benefits over regular milk. Since it comes from mostly grass-fed cows, it’s higher in nutrients than milk from cows that are fed corn and soy. Grass-fed milk contains up to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and research has shown that CLA can help decrease body fat and lower heart attack risk. Grass-fed milk also boasts higher levels of beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin D and about 60 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than its grain counterparts. If you want to reduce post-training muscle soreness, then you need more omega-3s, says a 2009 study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.
But raw milk is not super milk. It has limits. For instance, it doesn’t appear to help those with lactose intolerance, according to a pilot study from the Stanford University School of Medicine. The scientists compared raw and pasteurized milk among 16 lactose-intolerant subjects and found little difference in digestibility between the two. Nor is it an untapped source for valuable growth hormones, as is often rumored. The science isn’t there, Ricci says. He adds that any trace amounts that might be detectable would be almost useless because the stomach’s digestive acid would break it down and neutralize any benefit.
Use raw milk like you would regular milk. Add it to your smoothies, pour it over your cereal or chug it straight from the bottle. Still, it’s recommended that you begin slowly. “Anyone who has not had quality low-sugar yogurt or raw-milk cheese, or kefir [cultured milk], should begin with one of these and work up to raw milk,” Wightman says. “It gives your body time to adjust.”
After a while, you may find raw milk the ideal bodybuilding beverage. Welbourn does. He has stuck with raw milk since his NFL days. He drinks it each morning and throughout the day, and adds it to almost every pre- and postworkout meal. For him, raw milk is not a training trend, but part of his lifestyle. “Now I wouldn’t think of ever going back to the other stuff.”
Matthew Solan is a fitness and nutrition writer based in Florida. Follow him on Twitter: @matthewsolan or go to matthewsolan.com