Is Organic Milk Better?

Is organic milk better for your health? A new study answers this question, showing that milk from organic dairy cows has a more heart-healthy ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids compared with conventional milk.
By Joanna Poncavage
June/July 2014
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The standard U.S. diet has an imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Organic milk has a healthier ratio of these acids than conventional milk, and thus may help reduce the risk of heart disease and potentially cancer.
Photo by Fotolia/Jiri Hera

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The first large, nationwide comparison of organic and conventional milk composition, conducted by Washington State University (WSU), found that organic milk has a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Many researchers think a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids (found in meats and dairy products from grass-fed animals, flaxseed, seafood, walnuts and some leafy greens) reduces the risk of heart disease and, potentially, cancer by offsetting the too-high intake of omega-6 fatty acids in the contemporary U.S. diet. The typical U.S. diet contains a ratio of 10:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (the imbalance coming from consuming too much processed and fried food, grain oil, seed oil, and meat and dairy from grain-fed animals), while the ratio should be closer to 4:1 or even 2:1.

The 18-month study on the nutritional qualities of milk, published in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE, compared nearly 400 samples of organic and non-organic whole milk from 14 commercial milk processors. The study found that organic milk has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2.28:1 — just about perfect in terms of an optimal diet, according to WSU’s explanation of the findings.

The ratio of omega-fatty acids in conventional milk, according to the study, was up to 2.5 times higher, at about 5.8:1. Researchers attributed the difference in the milks to what the cows ate. Most conventional dairy cows’ diets are made up of ingredients high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn and corn silage. Organic dairy cows, by standards set by the USDA National Organic Program, spend a minimum of 120 days per year outside on grass pasture and eat forage-based feeds, such as hay, when grass pasture isn’t available.

“The very large increase in omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk — 62 percent higher than in conventional milk — really surprised the whole research team,” says Charles Benbrook, a program leader with WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. “These are the heart-healthy fatty acids that play a critical role during pregnancy and lactation, and as a child grows,” he adds. “The magnitude of the difference is the largest I know of between an organic food and its conventional counterpart.”

Consumers should choose whole organic milk to get the most benefit from this difference. “The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are in the fat portion of the milk,” Benbrook says. “Whole milk is about 3.4 percent butterfat, so if you drink 2 percent instead of whole, you’re giving up about half of that benefit.”

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6/19/2014 11:03:24 AM
Folks in our church have organic whole/2%/Raw milk and I love the stuff.....

6/2/2014 9:40:47 AM
Sorry, pcakes, but here is NC and elsewhere organic dairy farmers do use grain along with grass and forage. I caught a local farmer doing just that. Horizon was also caught not being who they claimed. They were bought out by Dean Foods and in one article was caught feeding grain and soy to their cows in Idaho. Sorry, that's not grass. I agree with Riverside. Cows were meant to eat GRASS, not grain, ever. Grain was introduced to increase fat content for the beef industry. Makes for a juicier burger or steak, and in dairy to increase milk production, but it doesn't make it right. Honestly, if you care about health, then this article should be titled " Is Raw Milk Better?" Sorry, but pasteurized milk is NOT good for anyone organic or conventional as it kills ALL the beneficial enzymes. and is what most states force on the public. What you end up with is a dead product that's definitely not worth the money you spent on it. In my state of NC, raw milk can only be sold as pet food. I found one supplier but he feeds his cows gmo grain just before calving. Insane! Our ancestors had it right all along. Sad to see that in our development as a society, we're just too busy, too indoctrinated and too lazy to fight for what is really right let alone know what is right.

6/2/2014 8:35:46 AM
It shows that when you feed an animal what it would eat naturally if it was "in the wild" it will be healthier and produce a superior product.

6/2/2014 8:04:44 AM
Riverside, read carefully - the article did not confuse the two terms; " Organic dairy cows, by standards set by the USDA National Organic Program, spend a minimum of 120 days per year outside on grass pasture and eat forage-based feeds, such as hay, when grass pasture isn’t available." Read more:

5/26/2014 9:07:30 AM
This article should not be confusing "organic" with the terms "grass fed" and "grain fed". The word "organic" is used entirely too much and seems to have lots its true meaning. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows: Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too. Correct me if I am wrong (cause that does happen quite often!), but doesn't their diet affect the omega fatty acid production? A grass fed cow will produce a better product which is higher in omega 3's than a grain fed cow. So feeding the cows a grass diet will produce a better product in the end. A farmer can feed his cow "certified organic" corn but it is still corn and raises the omega 6's...whether it is organic or not. I feel the term grass fed should be used instead of organic in this article. Just sayin...

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