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Is Dairy Healthy? The Whole Story – Part 3

Posted Sep 13 2011 9:24pm

Today marks the third and final installment of Brian St. Pierre’s guest series on dairy consumption. In Part 1 and Part 2 , he covered a lot of ground on the total health impact of dairy foods. If you missed them, I highly suggest reading these before you continue here with Part 3.

Pasteurization – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I am going to assume that you all know that pasteurization is the method by which milk is heated to destroy bacteria that may cause harm, as I am not going to get into technicalities of what it is and the different techniques available. Anyway, it does seem all well and good right? It destroys harmful bacteria, making contamination almost impossible.  Is it really all it is cracked up to be, though?

When Louis Pasteur came up with the process, our food production was terrible. Sanitation was poor, and (thanks to Pastuer) we’d really just begun to understand that germs caused illness.  Animals (like cows) were not brought up in pristine conditions.  Folks were starting to mass-milk cows in these unsanitary conditions, too – so there was certainly an increased likelihood of getting sick and ending up with serious health problems, as medicine back then surely wasn’t what it is today.

This was before the creation of the FDA or any other food regulatory system, and before Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle showcased to the nation how disgusting our food production was (incidentally, that book led to the creation of the FDA, but that is beyond the scope of this article). It is completely logical to believe that pasteurization was a huge breakthrough, and a necessity at the time of its inception. At the time, pasteurized milk was safer than raw. The question is though, is that still the case today?

Let me back up a second and talk about glutathione, our body’s master antioxidant. Glutathione has many important functions:

  • Neutralizes free radicals and peroxides
  • Maintains blood levels of antioxidants vitamins C and E
  • Helps the liver and white blood cells in the detoxification of foreign compounds and carcinogens
  • Is essential for the optimized immune function
  • Plays a key role in a plethora of metabolic and biological processes like DNA synthesis, protein synthesis, prostaglandin synthesis and more.

We know that whey protein’s cysteine content is responsible for much of its ability to boost glutathione, but not all of it. This ability may also come from two biological fractions found in whey: beta-lactoglobulin and serum albumin. These proteins contain some very special glutamyl-cysteine bonds that tend to enter our blood stream intact, and are much more readily turned into glutathione. Unfortunately, it seems that when whey protein undergoes extensive heat treatment, these two delicate fractions are destroyed.

This is not only problem in whey protein powder processing, but also with pasteurizing milk. In fact, pasteurization in general decreases the whey protein concentration in milk. The heat causes the proteins to denature and associate with the casein proteins. The higher the temperature – as when milk is ultra-pasteurized – the greater the denaturing of whey.

In fact, whey normally makes up about 20% of the protein in raw milk. Gentle pasteurization (high temperature, short time) causes this to drop down to about 12-13%, while ultra-pasteurization causes whey to fall to only about 5% of the total protein content!

On top of that, exposing raw milk to different heat treatments also affected those delicate biological fractions of whey.  In raw milk, beta-lactoglobulin makes up almost 90% of the whey protein. After gentle pasteurization, it makes up just under 70%, and after ultra-pasteurization it drops down to just over 20%!

In addition to the beta-lactoglobulin, serum albumin levels are also affected by pasteurization. Gentle pasteurization has been found to decrease serum albumin levels by 40%, while ultra-pasteurization reduced it by 77%!

After reviewing the evidence, does raw milk seem healthier? I would say one could make a very strong argument that this is the case. Is raw milk any less safe?  This is also debatable, but in my opinion it is probably only an issue for pregnant and nursing moms, as well as young children.  For them, I am hesitant to recommend raw milk, regardless of the potential benefits.  For everyone else, the choice is yours – if your state allows it.

Whole Fat Milk Leads to Greater Muscle Growth?

I haven’t discussed the role of dairy in muscle growth yet in spite of the fact that it’s surely of interest to you – so let’s get to it now. Researchers compared skim milk to whole milk in the post-training period to see which would produce greater anabolic effects.  They pitted 14oz of skim milk against 8oz of whole milk, to make them calorically equal.  Theoretically, the results should be even or in the favor of skim milk, since it had six more grams of protein.  The research actually showed that whole milk was more effective than skim, despite the lower protein content and equal total calories.

Another notch in favor of whole-fat over fat-free, and while it is just one study, at the very least it seems clear that fat (specifically milk fat), is certainly not going to inhibit results if consumed post-training.

In Conclusion

If you made it this far, I applaud you, as this was an absolute beast of an article. You have just read almost 3,000 words on dairy, so give yourself a little pat on the back.

In my mind, and from the totality of the data, it is clear that if you choose to consume dairy (and I’m not even saying you have to) your best bet for health and body composition purposes would be whole-fat, grass-fed and lightly pasteurized (or raw) options.

However, finding companies that make such products can often be difficult. To make matters worse, not all organic dairy options are created equal, and not all are even grass-fed. In fact, many organic dairies produce milk and dairy that is no better than conventionally-produced grain fed options.  To find out whether the organic dairy available to you is of high quality, or even grass-fed, check out this report from the Cornucopia Institute. It will provide you with national and local organic dairy options, as well as how much time their cows spend on pasture, whether they receive antibiotics and more.

For example, Organic Valley and Whole Foods 365 are two brands that are available nationally and received good reviews. In contrast, Horizon, the largest organic dairy producer, would not even provide their information to the Cornucopia Institute. I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to consume food from a company that is not transparent about its production practices.

In the end, the choices are yours, so choose wisely.


Douglas F, Greenberg R, Farrell H, Edmondson L. Effects of ultra-high-temperature pasteurization on milk proteins. J Agri Food Chem. 1981 29(1):11-15

Morales F, Romero C, Jiménez-Pérez S. Characterization of industrial processed milk by analysis of heat-induced changes. Inter J Food Sci Tech. March 2000 35(2):193–200

Elliot TA, Cree MG, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR, Tipton KD.  Milk ingestion stimulates net muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Apr;38(4):667-74.

About the Author

Brian St. Pierre is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He received his degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition with a focus in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Maine, and he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the same institution. He was the Nutritionist and a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA for three years. He is also the author of the Show and Go Nutrition Guide, the accompanying nutrition manual to Eric Cressey’s Show and Go Training System.

With his passion for seeing his clients succeed, Brian is able to use his knowledge, experience, and energy to create highly effective training and nutrition programs for clients of any age and background. For more information, check out his website .

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