(Beyond Pesticides, December 12, 2013) Milk lovers everywhere may feel a little less guilty the next time they indulge in that usually taboo glass of creamy, whole milk ””as long as it is organic, that is. A new study, Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States—Wide, 18-Month Study, conducted by Charles M. Benbrook, Ph.D. and other researchers from Washington State University found that organically produced milk provides significantly more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced milk.
The study looked at 384 samples of organic and conventional milk from across the country spanning an 18-month period of time (between 2011 and 2012) and examined the breakdown of omega-6 fatty acids as compared to omega-3 fatty acids within each sample. The results show that although the total amount of fat was almost the same, the organic milk contained 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids and 25 percent fewer omega-6s.
Omega-3 fatty acids are needed for healthy blood-clotting function and brain cell development and performance, among other essential bodily functions. Studies have linked omega-3 consumption to decreased risks of heart disease and other conditions, including cancers and Alzheimer’s.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also necessary and beneficial to the human body. Consumption of omerga-6 fatty acids, however, faces rising concerns over the now-challenged dietary assumption that all plant-based, polyunsaturated fats are created equal. For example, according to one clinical investigator at the National Institutes of Health (interviewed by Time Magazine), there has been some evidence to suggest that omega-6 fatty acids may trigger inflammation, a condition that is linked to an increased risk of heart problems, while omega-3 fatty acids, found in deepwater fish like salmon, tend to inhibit inflammatory reactions.
This is not the first time that a study concerning organic milk of this nature has been conducted. In 2009, researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom reached similar conclusions, albeit based on a smaller sample size.
Why is organic milk different?
So what makes organic milk different than conventional? Organic milk production standards, recently strengthened in 2010, require cows to graze on pasture for the full length of the grazing season, a period of time that must last at least 120 days. Additionally, 30 percent of an organic dairy cow’s food must come from the pasture. The effects of the organic standards translate into a diet based on grass, not grain. While it may seem obvious to require that a cow be allowed to feed and roam in a pasture eating grass, the unfortunate truth is that conventional dairy cows are often fed a diet exclusively based on grain. And it is the grass that makes the difference in the presence of omega-3s.
It’s Not Just Your Heart
While some supporters and consumers of organic produce may feel a small amount of vindication upon hearing the reports of this most recent study, many will just add it to the long list of the reasons why they support organic food production over conventional.
Better nutrition is wonderful, but as any organic supporter and consumer understands, the practices and standards that separate organic and conventional go far beyond providing more omega-3 fatty acids. Buying organic supports an entire system that is conscious of the health of people, animals, and the environment. From reduced exposure to pesticides for farmworkers to bans on unnecessary and dangerous uses of antibiotics in livestock feed, choosing organic means supporting the overall well-being and health of not only yourself and family, but everyone around you.
To learn more about why it is critical to continue to support organic food production and maintain the integrity of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic label, please visit our Keep Organic Strong webpage.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.