Health Benefits of Organic vs. Conventional Milk

Story at-a-glance

New research showed that organic milk contained 25% less omega-6 fats and 62% more beneficial omega-3 fats than conventional milk

Those who drank conventional milk had a 2.5-fold higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than those who drank organic milk (a higher ratio is linked to chronic disease)

Organic milk also contained greater amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer-fighting fatty acid

Organic milk is much more likely to come from cows that have been (at least partially) grass-fed, which is linked to more nutritious milk

In an effort to make the most of your food budget, you’ve probably wondered which foods are the most important to buy organic.

I have prreviously stated that organic milk was typically not worth its higher price, because while organic milk must come from a cow that hasn’t been fed artificial growth hormones or pesticide-laden GMO feed, the cows are not necessarily pastured, or grass-fed, cows.

Further, most organic milk in the US is still pasteurized, which destroys vital nutrients. That being said, a new study has shown that non-pastured and homogenized/pasteurized organic milk may, in fact, be superior to conventional milk in a very important way, one that may make it worth buying after all.

Organic Milk Has More Beneficial Omega-3, Less Damaging Omega-6

Eating too much damaged omega-6 fat and too little omega-3 sets the stage for health problems you are probably seeking to avoid, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes, just to name several. Most people, especially Americans, are guilty of this lopsided omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and to correct it, you typically need to do two things:

  1. Significantly decrease omega-6 by avoiding processed foods and foods cooked at high temperatures using vegetable oils
  2. Increase your intake of heart-healthy animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil

If you’re a milk drinker, switching your milk from conventional to organic may be another way to improve this ratio, as new research showed that organic milk contained 25% less omega-6 fats and 62% more omega-3 fats than conventional milk.1

Switching to Organic Dairy Might Improve Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio

Furthermore, over a 12-month period, those who drank conventional milk had a 2.5-fold higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than those who drank organic milk. The researchers noted that all types of omega-3 fats — linolenic acid (by 60%), eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA (32%), and docosapentaenoic acid or DHA (19%) — were higher in the organic milk. The organic milk also contained greater amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer-fighting fatty acid.

Perhaps most striking of all, the study found that people who made the following three dietary changes could decrease their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio by about 80 percent of the total decrease needed to reach a target ratio of 2:3.

  • Reduce consumption of omega-6 fats
  • Switch to organic dairy products
  • Have a high, instead of moderate, dairy consumption, primarily full-fat varieties

The authors’ suggestion that the greatest benefits were gained not only from higher amounts of organic dairy products but also of fat-containing dairy products prompted The Boston Globe to run an article questioning the study’s outcome (their article also pointed out that the study was funded by Organic Valley dairy and co-authored by an Organic Valley employee).2

However, many studies have shown full-fat dairy products to be beneficial and protective against diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, as well as weight gain. The researchers noted:

“Over the last century, intakes of omega-6 fatty acids in Western diets have dramatically increased, while omega-3 intakes have fallen. Resulting omega -6/3 intake ratios have risen to nutritionally undesirable levels, generally 10 to 15, compared to a possible optimal ratio near 2.3.

…We conclude that consumers have viable options to reduce average omega -6/3 intake ratios, thereby reducing or eliminating probable risk factors for a wide range of developmental and chronic health problems.”

Pasture Time Is Likely Responsible for Much of the Organic Benefit

When you think of a cow in its natural environment, doing what it naturally does, you likely will picture it grazing. Is it grazing on stalks of corn? Never! It’s grazing on GRASS. Grass is a cow’s natural food. Corn and other grains are not.

When cows eat grains their body composition changes. Most importantly for you, these changes include an alteration in the balance of essential fats. Milk (and meat) from cows raised primarily on pasture has been repeatedly shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the healthy fats omega-3 and CLA.

So one reason why the organic milk likely fared much better nutritionally in the featured study is because it’s much more likely to come from (at least partially) grass-fed cows. The researchers wrote:

“…milk from cows consuming significant amounts of grass and legume-based forages contains less [omega-3 fats] and higher concentrations of ALA, CLA, and the long-chain [omega-3s]  EPA and DPA, compared to cows lacking routine access to pasture and fed substantial quantities of grains.

In most countries, lactating cows on organically managed farms receive a significant portion of daily DMI [dry matter intake] from pasture and conserved, forage-based feeds, while cows on conventional farms receive much less.

In the most recent U.S. government dairy sector survey, only 22% of cows had access to pasture, and for most of these, access was very limited in terms of average daily DMI.”

Organic Raw Milk: An Even Better Option

If you only have a choice between organic pasteurized dairy or conventional pasteurized dairy, organic may be the better option – especially if it’s from grass-fed cows. However, an even better choice is organic raw milk. High-quality raw milk has a mountain of health benefits that pasteurized milk lacks. For example, raw milk is:

  • Loaded with healthy bacteria that are good for your gastrointestinal tract
  • Full of more than 60 digestive enzymes, growth factors, and immunoglobulins (antibodies)
  • Rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which fights
  • Rich in beneficial raw fats, amino acids, and proteins in a highly bioavailable form, all 100 percent digestible
  • Loaded with vitamins (A, B, C, D, E, and K) in highly bioavailable forms, and a very balanced blend of minerals (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron) whose absorption is enhanced by live lactobacilli

It is not uncommon for people who switch from drinking pasteurized to raw milk to experience improvement or complete resolution of troubling health issues—everything from allergies to digestive problems to eczema. When milk is pasteurized, fats are oxidized, proteins denatured and most enzymes are completely destroyed, resulting in a “food” that may be more harmful than beneficial to our health.

Additionally, the bacteria killed by pasteurization are not removed, so their dead cell fragments remain in the milk to ignite immune reactions in those who ingest them, which is one major cause of milk allergies. Often the “milk allergy” is not to the milk itself, but to the post-pasteurization cell fragments it contains.

Is Any Milk Really a ‘Health’ Food?

Milk is mired in controversy, even beyond the organic vs. conventional or raw vs. pasteurized debates. Some also question whether milk of any kind is actually the healthful food it’s made out to be. Personally, I don’t drink much milk, raw or otherwise (although I do currently use about one pound of raw butter a week). If you are going to drink milk, please be sure to restrict it to whole milk, and avoid the reduced-fat milk recommendation.

Many experts regularly promote the use of low fat or skim milk as a healthier option. Far from being healthful, some researchers have suggested that the consumption of reduced-fat milk, which is high in milk sugar, may instead be contributing to the obesity epidemic (one cup of 2 percent milk contains more than 12 grams of sugar – nearly as much as a chocolate chip cookie). 

The study, in JAMA Pediatrics,3questions the scientific rationale for promoting milk consumption for both children and adults, and reconsiders the role of cow’s milk in human nutrition. The authors stated:

“Humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk, an evolutionarily recent addition to diet. Anatomically modern humans presumably achieved adequate nutrition for millennia before domestication of dairy animals, and many populations throughout the world today consume little or no milk for biological reasons (lactase deficiency), lack of availability, or cultural preferences. Adequate dietary calcium for bone health, often cited as the primary rationale for high intakes of milk, can be obtained from other sources.”

Choosing Milk from a High-Quality Source Matters

Most pasteurized milk sold at supermarkets comes from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), where the animals are fed antibiotics, the result of which is they become living and breathing “bioreactors” for the generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They may also receive hormones, which increase milk production, and they’re fed a diet of grains and soy (most of which is now the genetically engineered variety) rather than grass, which alters their gut flora and the nutritional quality of the milk.

If you choose to drink milk, the quality – and the nutrition – will likely be far better if it comes from a cow raised on pasture instead of in a CAFO. Milk from grass-fed cows raised on smaller, clean farms can usually be safely consumed without being pasteurized, provided the farmer is committed to providing a safe, quality product. However, even if you drink pasteurized milk, choosing milk that comes from a local organic farm is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting high-quality, hormone-free milk.

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