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From the Townsend Letter
October 2008

Fresh Farm Milk Prevents Childhood Asthma and Allergies
by Martha V. Pickard, MS

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Asthma and allergies are on the rise in all industrialized nations. In the last decade, there has been considerable interest in Europe about the relationship between farm children and the lower incidence of allergies and asthma they experience. Most researchers were working on the hypothesis that farm children are exposed to more irritants at a young age and are thus protected from asthma and allergies. However, by use of food surveys and clinical tests, they found that farm milk (which is usually whole unpasteurized milk), consumed early in the child's life, provided substantial protection against asthma and allergies.

A cross-sectional survey conducted in rural areas of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, involving 2618 families with children ranging from six to 13 years of age, found correlations that suggested substantial protection against development of asthma, hay fever, and allergic sensitization in children exposed to stables, farm milk, or both in their first years of life.1 Researchers hypothesized that farm milk, which is usually raw, contains more gram-negative bacteria. Thus, the protective factor associated with consumption of farm milk could be the ingestion of non-infectious microbial components, with resultant changes to the gut flora.

Unpasteurized milk was associated with the protective effect on skin prick test positivity in a Study of Asthma and Allergy in Shropshire, UK.2 Eight hundred and seventy-nine children participated in the skin prick test, and unpasteurized milk consumption was associated with a significant 70% reduction in prevalence of skin prick sensitivity. No other food included in the survey showed the consistent relationship with reduced sensitivity of unpasteurized milk.

In view of the European studies of lower incidence of asthma and allergies in farm children, another study was conducted in New Zealand.3 Two hundred and ninety-three rural children (ranging from seven to ten years of age) were involved in the study. Skin prick tests of eight common allergens were given, and parents completed questionnaires about allergic and infectious diseases, place of residence, and diet. Unlike in European studies, children in this study who lived on farms had more hay fever, allergy rhinitis, asthma, and wheeze, but the researchers still found that consumption of yogurt and/or unpasteurized milk in the first years of life decreased the prevalence of hay fever and allergic rhinitis at seven to ten years of age. The authors hypothesize that this may be due to bacteria found in yogurt and unpasteurized milk, which could stimulate the Th1 immune response. Another hypothesis was that the unpasteurized milk had a high fat content that may have provided protection from asthma, hay fever, eczema, and allergic rhinitis.4 The authors concluded that the consumption of whole milk, but not skimmed, was associated with a decreased prevalence of asthma and allergies.

A large, cross-sectional multi-center study involving 14,893 children, ranging from five to 13 years of age from five European countries, showed that consumption of farm milk was associated with a statistically significant inverse association with asthma, rhino conjunctivitis, sensitization to pollen, food allergens, and horse dander.5 This association was independent of any other farm-related exposures, and no other farm-produced products were associated with a lower prevalence of asthma and allergies.

There are several hypotheses that may account for the protective effect of whole, unpasteurized farm milk. One hypothesis is that the beneficial bacteria in the unpasteurized milk support the gut flora and gut immune system and stimulate the Th1 immune response. Another hypothesis is that raw milk is whole milk and thus provides children the necessary fats for proper lung development and function. Lung surfactants, the specialized phospholipids in the cell membranes of the lungs, are 100% saturated fatty acids. Fresh farm milk differs from milk that is commercially available because it has not been separated and reconstituted at the milk factory to meet the industry standard of 3.5% butterfat. The butterfat content in farm milk naturally varies between breeds and diet. A third hypothesis involves the nutritional superiority of grass-fed dairy products, the basis of agriculture in most of the rural areas in these European studies. A cow's diet is one of the largest influences on the content and composition of the milk fat and the fat-soluble micronutrient components of the dairy products. Grass-fed dairy products are higher in vitamin E,6 omega 3 fatty acids,7 and the natural trans fat conjugated linoleic acid.8 Dairy products rich in conjugated linoleic acid have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.9

Sanitary conditions and animal health are a large concern when consuming unpasteurized dairy products. Well-managed dairy farms with grass-fed cattle provide a more nutrient-dense product and have significantly lower bacteria counts and environmental pathogens, offering a safe option for unpasteurized milk consumption.10 Also, stainless steel equipment and closed loop milking systems are common dairy management practices that offer protective measures from exposure to harmful bacteria and pathogens. Today, certified raw milk sold legally in Connecticut and California cannot exceed 10,000 bacteria per ml. Pasteurized milk can contain 50,000 per ml before pasteurization and 15,000 per ml after pasteurization.11

There is strong evidence that whole, unpasteurized dairy products support healthy gut flora, the immune system, and proper lung development that provide young children protection from asthma and allergies. The health care community should provide support to grass-based dairy farms by educating their patients about nutritionally dense, raw, grass-based milk products. This endorsement could help revitalize our rural communities and provide a solid preventative measure towards childhood asthma and allergies.

1. Riedler J, Braun-Fahrlander C, Eder W, Schreuer M, Waser M, Maisch S, Carr D, Schierl R, Nowak D, von Mutis E, ALEX Study Team. Exposure to farming in early life and development of asthma and allergy: a cross –sectional survey. The Lancet. 358; Oct. 2001: 1129-1133.
2. Perkin MR, Strachan DP. Which aspects of the farming lifestyle explain the inverse association with childhood allergy? Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2006;117:1374-81.
3. Wickens K, Lane JM, Fitzharris P, Siebers R, Riley G, Douwes J, Smith T, Crane J. Farm residence and exposures and the risk of allergic diseases in New Zealand children. Allergy. 2002:57;1171-1179.
4. Von Ernestine OS, von Mutis E, Illi S, Baumann L, Bohm O, von Kries R. Reduced risk of hay fever and asthma and allergic sensitization. Allergy. 2000;30:187-193.
5. Waser M, Michels KB, Bieli C, Pershagen G, von Mutis E, Ege M, Riedler J, Schram-Bijkerk D, Brunekreef B, van Hage M, Lauener R, Braun-Fahrlander C and PARISFAL Study Team. Inverse association of farm milk consumption with asthma and allergy in rural and suburban populations across Europe. Clinical and Experimental Allergy.2007 May; 37(5): 661-70.
6. Kay JK, Roche JR, Kolver ES, Thomson NA, Baumgard LH. A comparison between feeding systems (pasture and TMR) and the effect of vitamin E supplementation on plasma and milk fatty acid profiles in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Research.2005 Aug; 72 (3):322-32.
7. Hauswirth CB, Scheeder M, Beer JH. High n-3 fatty acid content in alpine cheese, the basis for an alpine paradox. Circulation.2004; 109:103-107.
8. Dhiman TR, Anand GR, Satter LD, Pariza MW. Conjugated linoleic acid content of milk from cows fed different diets. Journal of Dairy Science 1999 Oct; 82 (10): 2146-56.
9. Belury M. Dietary conjugated linoleic acid in health: physiological effects and mechanisms of action. Annual Review of Nutrition. 2002 (22): 505-31.
10. Goldberg JJ, Wildman EE, Pankey JW, Kunkel JR, Howard DB, Murphy BM. The influence of intensively managed rotational grazing, traditional continuous grazing and confinement housing on bulk tank milk quality and udder health. Journal of Dairy Science. 1992;75: 96-104.
11. A Campaign for Real Milk. Which do you choose? Available at: Accessed March 12, 2008.

Martha Pickard, MS, Human Nutrition
Ag/Grazing Program Coordinator
Adirondack North Country Association


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