Whether or not raw milk is safe to drink has been a controversial issue for many years, particularly in countries with more nanny-state tendencies (why I'm "not allowed" to recommend it, apparently we're all small children here). However, a study published in early 2015 showed that babies given raw cow's milk instead of UHT formula actually had a reduced risk of common infections, such as colds and ear infections.
This study, known as the PASTURE study, followed 983 babies from five countries for the first year of their lives. They came from rural areas in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France and Finland. Even though most European societies discourage raw milk consumption, many farming families who can produce their own still drink it. The invention of refrigerators, plus the freshness, are most likely factors contributing to the lack of tuberculosis, listeriosis etc. seen in these families. Pasteurisation was invented in the 1860s, while refrigerators appropriate for home use were invented in the 1910s. Like human breast milk, however, cow's milk may contain beneficial constituents such as antibodies which assist the immune system.
In this study, parents were instructed to record what types of milk their babies consumed and the occurrence of infections from week 8 to week 53. There were very few "missing values" in the diaries given out, and as most infections are not reported to doctors, parents' reporting was more likely to be accurate. UHT milk was used as a control, with pasteurised milk, boiled fresh milk and raw milk all compared in terms of infection incidence. Raw milk was the most protective against infections, with a 29% reduced risk of rhinitis (runny nose); a 23% lower risk of respiratory infections; a 31% reduced risk of fever and an impressive 86% reduced risk of ear infections. Boiled, fresh farm milk was associated with a 22% and 35% lower risk of respiratory infections and fever respectively, similar to raw milk. However, there was only an 18% lower risk of rhinitis and a 46% reduced risk of ear infections. Compared to UHT milk, pasteurised milk only reduced the risk of fever, by 31%. Only raw milk was linked with a significantly lower level of an inflammatory marker known as high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP). Babies who were given raw milk had 34% lower levels of hsCRP, regardless of infection or how long they were breastfed. Higher levels of hsCRP are linked with increased risk of obesity, respiratory impairments such as asthma and blood lipid profiles that are associated with cardiovascular disease.
There were other factors that also affected the risk of infection in the babies studied. Having older siblings was associated with a higher risk of infections, especially ear infections where there was more than double the risk. Living on a farm was linked with a 11-25% lower risk of infections. Parental history of atopic conditions (e.g. eczema) was only associated with a 21% higher risk of rhinitis and a 12% higher risk of respiratory infections. Surprisingly (based on what many mothers are told), a Caesarean birth was not significantly associated with higher risk of any infection.