Joe Mercola and raw milk faddism invade HuffPo

Since its very inception five years ago, The Huffington Post has been, to steal a phrase from Star Wars, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, at least when it comes to anything resembling medicine. Of course, that’s the problem. Very little, if anything, published in HuffPo resembles actual science-based medicine. The vast majority of medicine published there consists either of anti-vaccine screeds that are beyond stupid, quantum woo courtesy of Deepak Chopra, or pure, dangerous quackery, such as advocating homeopathy for H1N1 and acid-base woo for cancer. It’s so bad that on more than one occasion HuffPo has been described as waging a “war on science” and I myself have scoffed at the concept of a science section for Arianna’s home for wandering quacks and anti-vaccine loons.

Still, as long as I’ve been paying attention to HuffPo’s promotion of quackery (and it’s been five years now), there’s one step I hadn’t realized that HuffPo had taken. What could that be? After all, HuffPo has David Kirby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Deepak Chopra, Patricia Fitzgerald, “detox” maven Kim Evans, and even believer in “distant healing” Srinivasan Pillay. Who, you might reasonably ask, could be so bad that it would even surprise me? Take a guess. Seriously, take a guess.

Dr. Joe Mercola. I kid you not.

Mercola, as you may recall, is the guy who runs one of the largest repositories of medical pseudoscience and quackery on the web, Mercola.com, a site that vies with that other major anchor of quackery on the web, Mike Adams’ NaturalNews.com. Now he has a blogging gig on HuffPo. Apparently it started four months ago, and for some reason I never noticed. Maybe it’s because I don’t pay as much attention to HuffPo as I used to. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know, but I do know that it will provide me with a more “target-rich” blogging environment. Unfortunately, it will also promote more quackery to the masses. This time around, Mercola is giving advice that could be truly dangerous, in a post he called Why You Shouldn’t Drink Pasteurized Milk. It begins with primitive, vitalistic nonsense that has no place in science:

First of all, please understand that I do not recommend drinking pasteurized milk of any kind — ever. Because once milk has been pasteurized it’s more or less “dead,” and offers little in terms of real nutritional value to anyone, whether you show signs of intolerance to the milk or not.

Dead? You mean “dead” the way cooking vegetables allegedly kills them? What is it with these “raw food” and “raw milk” fanatics, anyway? Why do they insist that the food they eat must still be “alive”? Do they insist that their chicken clucks when they eat it? Do they insist on ripping muscle off of live cows to eat it? Do they grab a fish they just caught and eat it raw before the fish dies? Then what’s the big deal about “live” milk or “live vegetables”? There could be an argument to be made in some cases that cooking may destroy specific nutrients, but the argument that it somehow destroys all the nutritional value of various foods or that pasteurization utterly destroys the nutritional value of milk.

Of coures, Adams can’t handle the nuance of science-based medicine. For him, it’s either all or nothing. To quote a Star Wars movie again, albeit one of the lesser prequels, only a Sith deals in absolutes. Raw foodists and raw milk boosters are very Sith-like in their absolute, black and white thinking. Come to think of it, Sith-like thinking predominates a lot of “alternative” medicine. If chemotherapy can’t cure cancer 100% of the time, it’s worthless and doesn’t work at all. Ditto modern pharmaceuticals and whatever disease they are treating. By living “right,” you can always prevent cancer, heart disease, and other diseases that are influenced by lifestyle. “Western” medicine is always soulless, reductionistic, and of little or no utility.

And pasteurized milk is bad, bad, bad, bad–at least to Mercola:

The healthy alternative to pasteurized milk is raw milk, which is an outstanding source of nutrients including beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus, vitamins and enzymes, and it is, in my estimation, one of the finest sources of calcium available.

Raw milk is generally not associated with the health problems linked to pasteurized milk, and even people who have been allergic to pasteurized milk for many years can typically tolerate and even thrive on raw milk.

However, some people may still experience problems, such as upper respiratory congestion, when drinking raw milk, and the difference between the breeds of cows the milk comes from appears to hold the answer.

“Beneficial enzymes”? Enzymes are proteins. They are denatured in stomach acid and rapidly reduced to their constituent amino acids by the proximal small intestine, with the help of enzymes secreted by the pancreas. Leaving these “beneficial” enzymes intact by not pasteurizing them is not going to allow them magically to bypass the digestive system and be absorbed into the bloodstream. All the rest of these claims are sheer nonsense. If there’s enough lactobacillus in raw milk to make a difference, there could well be enough really nasty pathogens (like Campylobacter or E. coli) to make you really, really sick. Even worse, Mercola is claiming that someone with a milk allergy can safely consume raw milk. That’s extremely dangerous and potentially even deadly advice if someone with a serious milk allergy were foolish enough to listen to it.

Indeed, the WHO reports that there are no known proven reliable methods to reduce Campylobacter levels around dairy farms, which means that there is no known effective intervention farmers can use to decrease the risk of Campylobacter contamination of cow’s milk as it’s harvested. As a consequence, the WHO quite reasonably strongly discourages the consumption of raw milk. The evidence of the link between raw milk and serious infections is incontrovertible, as Dr. Joe Albietz points out after describing a patient he took care of who was sickened by raw milk. As blog bud PalMD points out, there have been 45 outbreaks of infections due to raw milk-borne Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli. Given the lack of evidence for truly compelling health benefits of consuming raw milk compared to consuming pasteurized milk, the risk just isn’t worth it. Even if the benefits were that compelling, other methods would need to be found to eliminate the risk of infection, because, even if the raw milk faddists’ most extreme fantasies were true, I’m still not sure the risk-benefit ratio would favor raw milk. Given that the fantasies of raw milk faddists for raw milk apparently to prevent and cure all that ails you are not based in science, there’s no doubt that the risk of infection far outweighs any possible benefit that raw milk can provide.

Mercola then goes on to make a rather remarkable additional claim, namely that we are “raising the wrong cows” that make a mutated form of a protein in milk known as casein. To boil it down, about 5,000 years ago a strain of cows developed a mutation in casein known as A1. A1 casein is allegedly bad; A2 casein is allegedly good, and–of course!–in the U.S. most cows make A1 casein:

Beta casein is a chain of 229 amino acids. A2 cows produce this protein with a proline at number 67, whereas A1 cows have a mutated proline amino acid, which converts it to histidine.

The proline in A2 milk has a strong bond to another small protein called BCM 7, which helps keep it from being released.

Histidine (the mutated protein), on the other hand, only weakly holds on to BCM 7, so it is liberated in the GI tract of animals and humans who drink A1 cow milk. Now, BCM7 is a powerful opiate that can have a very detrimental impact on your body.

As discussed in these two articles from the NY Times and the Medical Hypotheses, it is likely the cause of increased phlegm production in your digestive- and respiratory tract, which can worsen upper respiratory problems.

Here’s a hint: Medical Hypotheses (MH) is a speculative journal that is not peer reviewed. As I’ve discussed many times before, MH is a welcoming home to all sorts of crackpot ideas that can be presented without evidence. The NYT article actually references the MH article; it relatively credulously discusses it, concluding, “THE BOTTOM LINE: There may be a link between milk and phlegm in some people, but for now it is only hypothetical.”

Now that’s some pretty lame evidence.

Mercola also references a website betacasein.net, which, according to Mercola, “offers a comprehensive list of published scientific studies of the differences between A1 and A2 milk and their health ramifications.” I did find several articles there, and I’ll quote some of them.

  • “We found no evidence that dairy products containing beta-casein A1 or A2 exerted differential effects (P > 0.05) on plasma cholesterol concentrations in humans.” (Venn et al, 2006)
  • “Plasma insulin, homocysteine, C-reactive protein, fibrinogen, protein C and S and von Willebrand factor levels were not different between the two casein supplements. Endothelium function, measured as a vascular response using venous occlusion plethysmography to intra-arterial infusions of the endothelium-dependent agonist acetylcholine, were not different between the two casein interventions. Similarly, neither blood pressure nor measures of large artery stiffness were affected by differing the casein variant. We therefore conclude that there is no evidence from the present study that supplementation with casein A1 has any cardiovascular health disadvantage over consumption of casein A2.” (Chin-Dusting et al, 2006)
  • “The animal experiments with diabetes-prone rodents that supported the hypothesis about diabetes were not confirmed by larger, better standardised multicentre experiments. The single animal experiment supporting an A1 beta-casein and CHD link was small, short, in an unsuitable animal model and had other design weaknesses. The A1/A2 milk hypothesis was ingenious. If the scientific evidence had worked out it would have required huge adjustments in the world’s dairy industries. This review concludes, however, that there is no convincing or even probable evidence that the A1 beta-casein of cow milk has any adverse effect in humans. This review has been independent of examination of evidence related to A1 and A2 milk by the Australian and New Zealand food standard and food safety authorities, which have not published the evidence they have examined and the analysis of it. They stated in 2003 that no relationship has been established between A1 or A2 milk and diabetes, CHD or other diseases.” (A review by A.S. Truswell, 2005)

From my perusal of the literature, the best I could find was that the evidence that the A1 variant of casein has any adverse effects on health relative to the A2 variant is weak, conflicting, and not at all convincing. In fact, the only sources to which Mercola refers that are actually peer-reviewed scientific and medical studies are not particularly supportive of his idea. The sources he cites that are enthusiastically supportive of all the claims Mercola makes for raw milk are not peer reviewed. One is a book disguised as a “study. Of xourse, when I see “publication by book” or publication by press release, I always wonder why, if what the author allegedly found is so revolutionary, the author didn’t–oh, you know=–publish the research in a peer-reviewed journal rather than as a book. Other sources cited by Mercola include commentaries and an MH article.

The claims made by raw milk faddists seem way too good to be true, and, not surprisingly, they are. They make incredible claims for how raw milk will supposedly eliminate allergies, provide calcium, prevent diabetes and heart disease, and all manner of other diseases. No reliable or convincing science supports any of these claims.

The raw milk cult is simply another example of the worship of “ancient” wisdom. It’s a manifestation of the yearning for the pastoral life on the farm that seems to permeate so much of “alternative” medicine. In moderation, to at least some extent, life on a farm would be healthier than how most people live now, with lots of exercise and food fresh from the fields. Raw milk probably won’t hurt people if it’s drunk right after the cow is milked, but distributing raw milk, where it has to be stored and transported, provides ample opportunity for the bacteria contaminating it to grow to dangerous levels that can cause disease when the milk is consumed. Pasteurization was developed because of an obvious and serious problem with milk contamination. It is actually a triumph of food safety that allowed milk to be distributed far from the farm where it was produced and stored until sold and consumed. These days, ultrapasteurization allows milk to be stored for ever-longer periods of time safely without any convincing evidence of a huge decrease in the nutritional value.

Modern life, complete with its processed foods and preservatives, for example, may be rife with detrimental effects on health, but pasteurization is not one of them–quite the contrary. Let’s not forget that the “good old days” weren’t always so good, and that the idealized vision being promoted by raw foodists of life out on the farm drinking raw milk was not so ideal.