The study, supported by the European Commission (EC) and Dutch dairy FrieslandCampina, found that raw milk consumption between eight and 53 weeks of life reduced the risk of rhinitis, respiratory tract infections, otitis, and fever by around 30% compared to the consumption of ultra-heat treated (UHT) milk.
Sampling data from the 2002 Protection Against Allergy Study in Rural Environments (PASTURE) cohort, which followed 983 infants from rural areas in Austria, Finland, France, Germany, and Switzerland for the first year of life, researchers assessed the effects of raw, boiled, processed, and UHT milk consumption on infections common in infants.
Consumption of different types of cow's milk and the occurrence of rhinitis (inflammation of the mucous membrane inside the nose), respiratory tract infections, otitis (inflammation or infection of the ear), and fever were detailed in weekly diaries.
"When contrasted with ultra-heat treated milk, raw milk consumption was inversely associated with occurrence of rhinitis, respiratory tract infections, otitis, and fever," said the study.
"Boiled farm milk showed similar but weaker associations," it added.
Lower C-reactive proteins (CRP) levels, a measure of inflammation in the body, were also lower at one-year of age in those that consumed raw milk.
Overall, the findings indicate the "presence of anti-infective or immunomodulatory molecules relevant to such infections in humans" in unpasteurized milk, the study said.
Speaking with DairyReporter.com, lead author of the study, Georg Loss, Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, speculated on the identity of these molecules.
“We saw that consumption of raw cow’s milk reduced respiratory infections in the first year of life when compared with the consumption of UHT milk," said Loss.
“There are some proteins found in milk that interact with the immune system," he said. "We find these proteins in raw milk, but not in UHT milk.”
Based on the team's findings, Loss said similarities can be drawn between raw cow's milk and breast milk.
“Unprocessed cow’s milk would be more similar to breast milk because the proteins would be undamaged," he said.
"I'm sure the industry would be very interested in having a product more similar to breast milk.”
But before it can take advantage, the dairy industry must overcome the safety issues surrounding raw milk.
“...raw milk can confer life-threatening infectious diseases," said the study. "Hence, there is a need for minimally processed by microbiologically safe milk."
The public health impact of minimally processed but pathogen-free milk could be “enormous,” it added.
“It’s a no go to sell raw cow’s milk because of the chance of infection,” Markus Ege, Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, told DairyReporter.com.
“But the industry may come up with some way to treat raw milk without heat and without destroying the biologically active ingredients.”
“That would be our wish to the dairy industry – to develop new processing methods," he added.
Source: The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2014.08.044
Title: Consumption of unprocessed cow's milk protects infants from common respiratory infections
Authors: G Loss, M Depner, L Ulfman, J van Neervan, A Hose, J Genuneit, A Karvonen, A Hyvarinen, V Kaulek, C Roduit, J Weber, R Lauener, P Pfefferle, J Pekkanen, O Vaarala, JC Dalphin, J Riedler, C Braun-Fahlander, E von Mutius, M Ege.