Raw food diets are nothing new. Fans of uncooked food subscribe to the idea that high heat destroys nutrients, so a diet of foods that are as close to their natural state as possible should be healthier, says the Cleveland Clinic, by way of explaining the practice. With all the bad news about ultra-processed foods, that doesn’t sound too crazy — at least if you’re focusing on whole plant-based foods, as in a raw vegetarian or vegan diet.
Leave it to TikTok video influencers to push the concept a bit too far, however. To the alarm of food safety experts, users there have been promoting uncooked animal products, including milk and animal organs.
Chief among the #rawlife advocates is the flamboyant Liver King, the self-proclaimed “CEO of the ancestral lifestyle” with more than four million followers and 81.5 million likes on TikTok. Many videos feature a musclebound and shirtless Liver King sitting on a throne as he prepares to down a meal that might include raw liver (he claims to eat 3 ounces of raw liver at every meal), bone marrow, ground beef, or bull testicles. “Why eat vegetables when you can eat testicles?” is his frequently uttered tagline.
And there are plenty of other social media influencers, such as Paul Saladino, aka Carnivore MD, on the raw beat. A double board certified doctor, Saladino advocates unpasteurized milk, asserting that the heating process zaps key health benefits. (There is no evidence that this is true.)
Before you start ordering your steak tartare with a raw milk chaser, here’s what you should know about the potential health benefits and risks of certain uncooked foods.
What Research Says About Eating Raw Meat
Part of the idea that raw foods are healthier than cooked ones comes from the belief that heating foods destroys some of their nutrients. This isn’t entirely unfounded, says Don Schaffner, PhD, a professor of food science and an extension specialist at Rutgers University and a cohost of the podcast Food Safety Talk. “Heating destroys nutrients, and it doesn’t matter if those nutrients are in vegetables or meat, or other foods,” Dr. Schaffner says.
Certain nutrients are more susceptible to heat than others, however, and he points out that the major nutrients in meat, including protein and B vitamins, are affected very little by normal cooking temperatures, which is why searing a steak or baking a chicken breast does not alter the food’s basic nutritional value. Additionally, Schaffner says, “Sometimes heat can make the nutrients in foods more accessible.” One study that looked at how cooking affects the nutrients in cuts of pork, veal, and beef found that many vitamins and minerals decreased after cooking, but iron and zinc actually increased in cooked beef.
What about all those vitamins and minerals we’re missing out on? Are raw meat enthusiasts right when they say uncooked meat is healthier? “The question that we really have to ask ourselves,” Schaffner says, “is how important is this food for this nutrient, and how much does the preparation method affect it?” You’re likely not eating steak for its thiamine, so the micronutrients you’re losing in the cooking process aren’t really going to make a difference in your overall nutrition. “Today, Americans are, by and large, not underfed or nutrient deficient,” Schaffner says.
The Risks of Eating Uncooked Meat
There’s an important danger in consuming raw or undercooked meat: the potential for foodborne illness. “Not only is there a risk of being infected with campylobacters and salmonellas, but also parasites such as roundworms and tapeworms,” says Beth Czerwony, RD, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Nutrition. Campylobacter is a bacterium that causes campylobacteriosis, which is the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Salmonella bacteria typically live in animal and human intestines, and people usually get a salmonella infection by eating raw or undercooked meat, poultry, or eggs or by drinking raw milk, according to Mayo Clinic.
Typically, the specified safe internal temperature of properly cooked meat will kill disease-causing bacteria, according to the CDC. Thorough cooking is especially important with ground meats, which transfer bacteria that may have been on the surface of the meat to the interior during the grinding process. While you can find things like beef tartare on restaurant menus, be aware that raw meat always poses some risk of foodborne illness, according to the USDA.
There are other risks associated with eating beef liver every day, regardless of how much it’s cooked, says Czerwony. One 3 ounce portion of beef liver contains more than 1,000 percent of the copper you need daily, and more than 700 times the recommended amount of vitamin A, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). An overdose of these nutrients can have adverse health effects. Past research has found that beef livers also contain antibiotic residue, which is normally at a concentration too low to harm humans, but which could pose a problem if it is eaten regularly.
What Is Raw Milk?
Like raw meat, milk that comes straight from the cow may contain harmful pathogens, including campylobacter, cryptosporidium, E. coli, listeria, brucella, and salmonella, according to the CDC. Before pasteurization was invented, raw milk, and dairy products made from it, were known to cause diseases such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and diphtheria. “Basically, we started pasteurizing milk because untreated milk causes illness,” says Jennifer Quinlan, PhD, a professor and food safety expert at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
In pasteurization, milk is heated to a specific temperature (usually 161 degrees F for at least 15 seconds) to kill harmful bacteria, then rapidly cooled, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. “When you pasteurize milk, you don’t kill everything,” Dr. Quinlan points out. “You’re heating the milk, not sterilizing it. A lot of the bacteria is still there.” That’s why most milk has about a 10-day shelf life, she says.
Just as with cooking meat, pasteurization doesn’t significantly change the nutritional value of milk, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Numerous studies have compared the milk proteins, milk fat, minerals, and vitamins of both raw milk and pasteurized milk and concluded that raw milk is not nutritionally superior.
In spite of this, a 2020 study from the University of California in Davis found that an estimated 3 percent of the U.S. population consumes unpasteurized milk. There is no federal regulation of raw milk, and about a dozen states permit it to be sold for consumption, although as Janell Goodwin, a public affairs specialist at the FDA, says, “the FDA strongly supports the policy that all milk sold for human consumption should be pasteurized and that consumers should only drink milk that is pasteurized.”
Some people may prefer raw milk because they believe it to be a superior source of probiotics, or healthy bacteria, compared with pasteurized milk, but the UC Davis researchers did not find that to be the case. Although the microbiome is still being studied, as of now there’s no scientific evidence that anything in raw milk is particularly beneficial to gut health, says Quinlan. “However, there is evidence to say that there are pathogens in raw milk that can make you sick.”
In fact, while UC Davis researchers did not find more beneficial bacteria in raw milk, they did discover that, when left at room temperature, unpasteurized milk “creates dramatically more antimicrobial-resistant genes than pasteurized milk,” according to Jinxin Liu, PhD, the lead author of the study. That could lead to the growth of a “superbug,” or disease-causing pathogen that is resistant to antibiotics and cannot be easily treated.
According to data from the CDC, the majority of dairy-related illness outbreaks are related to unpasteurized milk and milk products, says Goodwin. “Compared to the consumption of pasteurized dairy products, the consumption of unpasteurized dairy products causes 840 times more foodborne illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations,” she says.
Symptoms of illness from raw milk can include diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Some people develop severe or even fatal diseases from this exposure, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, according to the CDC.
The Bottom Line: Raw Meat and Raw Milk Pose Serious Health Risks
There is no verifiable scientific research that supports the use of raw meat or milk to improve health or increase muscle, says Czerwony. Consumers should talk to their doctors or other healthcare professionals about their unique nutritional needs before following any kind of nutritional advice found on the internet, she adds.
If you want to build muscle by eating more protein, there are lots of healthy ways to do that, Quinlan says. Eating or drinking raw animal proteins are not among them.