The Real Importance of Organic Milk

26 Dec, 2013

via Center for Food Safety

Organic production systems are widely-recognized as environmentally beneficial because they don’t allow the use of synthetic, toxic chemicals—the basis of conventional agriculture. As a process-based standard, not a product-based standard, the notable benefits of organic are derived from the production process itself rather than any specific nutritional quality of the food.

So, while enhanced nutrition isn’t typically the claim to fame of organic, a recently released study shows that organic systems can yield a healthier product. The study demonstrates that organically produced milk is healthier than its conventional counterpart because it contains significantly higher levels of beneficial fatty acids. The authors identify the organic system of production as the key factor affecting the nutritional difference. 

In the study, Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition, Benbrook et al. repeatedly argue that organic production systems yield healthier milk because organic dairy farmers are legally mandated to pasture their cows when grasses and legumes are growing—120 days annually at a minimum.[1]  They further argue that this is what accounts for the enhanced nutritional quality and beneficial fatty acid profile of organic milk and dairy products. 

The authors tested 220 organic and 164 conventional whole-milk samples from producers in 7 regions across the U.S. and compared their fatty acid content over an 18 month period.  Their research showed that organic milk contains 62% more omega-3 fatty acids and 25% less omega-6 fatty acids then conventional milk. Although omega-3 fatty acids are essential to human health, they are not naturally produced in the human body, so they must be obtained through food consumption.[2] Omega-3s are also integral to healthy cell function and they have been shown to prevent heart disease and stroke.[3] Conversely, excessive levels of omega-6 fatty acids promote cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, blood clotting, and tumor growth.[4],[5]

Fatty acids are absorbed in the body in the same proportions as they are consumed.[6] With the advent of fast foods in particular, Western diets have gradually increased their omega-6 consumption and notably lowered omega-3 consumption, to the detriment of public health. A proper dietary balance allows the health-promoting characteristics of omega-3 to suppress the negative health impacts of omega-6 as their amounts in diets more closely align. Studies have demonstrated significant associations between lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratios and reductions in coronary heart disease and mortality. [7] Recent recommendations by nutritionists further suggest that healthy diets should have a ratio closer to one to one;[8] however, average ratios in U.S. diets have hovered around  8 to 20, with the latter being detrimental to health.[9],[10]

According to study authors, a switch to more organic whole milk and whole milk dairy products can rectify this dietary imbalance and should improve the long-term health of people who consume it. Furthermore, organic milk samples in the study contained higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid,[11] which has been shown to reduce the incidence and effects of cancer and atherogenesis (artery plaque build-up),[12] and assert positive effects on diabetes, immune function, and body composition.[13]

Benbrook et al.’s findings further add to existing evidence of the benefits of organic production systems,[14] including those not discussed in the study such as organic’s prohibition of synthetic, toxic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics in livestock production, and genetically engineered feed. These negative aspects of conventional agriculture pose additional health risks to people who consume animal products. Moreover, studies of milk from conventionally-raised pastured cows have shown detectable pesticide residues in the milk fat when synthetic pesticides were applied to pasture.[15]

The enhanced nutritional benefits of organic are increasingly becoming a claim to fame in organic. And, Benbrook et al.’s study of the enhanced health benefits of consuming whole organic milk and milk products identifies yet another benefit attributable to the organic production process.

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[1] OFPA CITE

[2] Daley, Cynthia, et al. (2005). A Literature Review of the Value-Added Nutrients found in Grass-fed Beef Products.

[3] Harvard School of Public Health. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution.” Nutrition Source. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/

[4] Daley, Cynthia, et al. (2005). A Literature Review of the Value-Added Nutrients found in Grass-fed Beef Products.

[5] Harvard School of Public Health. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution.” Nutrition Source. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/

[6] Benbrook, Charles M., et al. (2013). Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United-States Wide, 18-month Study. PLoS ONE 8(12).

[7] Clancy, Kate. (2006)

[8] Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA).

[9] Daley, Cynthia, et al. (2005). A Literature Review of the Value-Added Nutrients found in Grass-fed Beef Products.

[10] DeFilipis, Andrew P., MD, et al. (2005). “Understanding Omega-3’s” Curriculum in Cardiology,General Medicine, and Cardiology, Emory University School of Medicine.

[11] Benbrook (2012).

[12] Knowles, S.O., et al. (2011): Daley, Cynthia. Recorded Lecture.

[13] Clancy, Kate. (2006). These aspects have been demonstrated in animal studies only.

[14] Benbrook (2012).

[15] Willett, L.B., et al. (1993). Mechanisms of Movement of Organochlorine Pesticides from Soils to Cows via Forages. Journal of Dairy Science, 76(6).

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