Superfood Safety

30 May 2018, Stuart Spear, Environmental Health journalist

Bowl of cereal and fruit with milk

Superfoods are supposed to make you younger, fitter, brighter, healthier, but could they also make you seriously ill?

In the case of one particular superfood, the answer is ‘yes’. Every week on Channel 4’s 'Superfoods: The Real Story', presenter Kate Quilton cheerfully goes on a ‘global quest behind the hype’ to investigate foods claimed to have extraordinary curative properties. In episode 4 of the latest series, the superfoods on trial included de-stressing walnuts, nausea-beating ginger and allergy-busting unpasteurised milk. 

The programme took us to one of the UK’s largest raw milk producers, where farmer Steve has a herd of 80 dairy cattle producing half a million pints every year. Over the past 10 years, the number of UK farms selling raw milk has risen from 70 to 170, he tells us: ‘We have thousands of customers that have our milk and a lot of it is for health reasons.’ 

Steve clearly takes hygiene very seriously. There are the Food Standards Agency guidelines, with six-monthly inspections and three-monthly sampling, and then there are Steve’s standards. He sanitises udders, draws off fore milk in case bacteria are in the teat from previous milking, uses antibacterial wet wipes, and tests for E. coli 0157, listeria, salmonella, staphylococcus aureus and campylobacter every week. It seems to be paying off — 10 years of selling 10,000 pints a week and not a single food poisoning outbreak!

dairy cow in a field

"So, what claims are being made for raw milk?"

Professor Erika von Mutius from the University of Munich’s Asthma and Allergy Department is on hand to explain. Von Mutius has spent a decade researching whether raw milk has a positive effect on children’s health. Starting with pregnant women in rural areas, she's been monitoring the types of milk drunk by children up to the age of 10 and whether they have experienced any health benefits. The results have found that a child who regularly drinks raw milk has a 30% less chance of suffering rhinitis, a common symptom of allergy. The reason? It’s the old ‘a little dirt never hurt’ adage, with raw milk stimulating the immune system. 

So what happens when you switch your children from pasteurised to raw milk to try to decrease their susceptibility to allergies? The programme does not really spell that out, although Von Mutius does make it clear she would not recommend drinking raw milk. 

No programme on pathogens is complete without Professor Hugh Pennington. Pennington tells us that you might get away with drinking raw milk for a while but it's just not safe. 

We then watch the pathogens in raw milk flourish in a petri dish while those in pasteurised milk meet a grimmer fate. A major problem with branding raw milk as a superfood is that it confuses consumers, leading them to turn their backs on pasteurisation — one of the great public health breakthroughs. Reducing children’s exposure to allergies is something of great concern to today’s parent, but raw milk’s potential for life-changing damage to health may not be the best way to bring clarity to the issue. 

This episode of Channel 4. Superfoods: The Real Story was broadcast 11 September 2017. This article was originally published on 16 October 2017.