Raw milk won’t cure lactose intolerance, but it might make you ill

15 June 2023
What was claimed

Raw milk cures lactose intolerance.

Our verdict

This isn’t true. Raw unpasteurised milk still contains lactose, and doesn’t contain any of the enzymes needed to break it down, so people who have issues digesting milk shouldn’t expect it to fix these. Authorities also advise against consuming raw milk due to the risk of harmful bacteria.

An Instagram video promoting raw milk makes a false claim that it will cure lactose intolerance. The account that posted the video has 143,000 followers.  

A caption the post says “the cure to #lactoseintolerant is drinking raw milk”, while a line in the video itself says raw milk is “a better choice for those with lactose intolerance”.

This is not true.

Bad information about health can cause direct harm by encouraging people to consume foods or medicines that might make them unwell, or by making them avoid treatment that they need. 

It can also undermine medical experts and public health messaging and damages understanding of important health issues. We have written before about false claims by people with large social media followings claiming to offer legitimate health advice.

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Lactose intolerance and milk

Lactose is a sugar found in milk made by mammals. Human breast milk contains it, as does cow milk. It is broken down in our gut by lactase, a specific enzyme for this sugar. 

Lactose intolerance is usually caused by not having enough lactase, but it can be caused by other gut diseases. People with the condition will struggle to digest the lactose in dairy products, causing tummy upsets and other symptoms.

The issue can start at any age, with some people producing less lactase as they get older.

What is raw milk?

Most milk in the UK is pasteurised, which means it has been heat treated to remove harmful bacteria. Raw milk is milk that hasn’t undergone this process.

The Food Standards Agency advises that “raw or unpasteurised milk and cream may contain harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning. People with a weaker immune system are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning and should not consume it.” This includes people aged 65 or over, those who are pregnant, those who have a compromised immune system such as cancer patients, and infants and small children.

It is legal to sell it in certain situations (like farmers markets as shown in the video) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is against the law to sell raw milk to consumers in Scotland due to the infection risks.

But does it cure lactose intolerance?

The US Food and Drug Administration says clearly that raw milk does not cure lactose intolerance. This is because it contains lactose, and does not contain any lactase or lactase-producing probiotics that would make up for this.

A 2010 review of the evidence for raw milk consumption and the effects of pasteurisation found one study looking at lactose intolerance specifically, which didn’t find any significant association with drinking raw milk and the condition.

One later small study at Stanford University took 16 lactose intolerant people and trialled them on pasteurised, raw and soy milk and found “no hint of any benefit” to intolerance symptoms when the participants consumed raw milk.

On the probiotic issue, a 2012 review from scientists linked to the Belgian Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain did find that raw milk can contain some probiotic bacteria, but in amounts that would need to be “1000 to 10 000 times higher than the amount actually present in raw milk” to have any effect.

Full Fact has contacted the Instagram page but no response was received at time of writing.

Featured image courtesy of Mark Stebnicki

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