Green Right Now Reports

So you’ve got milk. But is it the best kind?

A study by Washington State University published this week confirms what many shoppers have suspected for years: organic milk is healthier than conventional milk.

Dairy cow USDA

Cows raised on pasture, which is a requirement for organic dairy production, produce milk with more Omega-3s, researchers found.

The study found that organic milk contained higher concentrations of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than milk from conventional dairy farms.

Because organic dairy cows are pastured and fed omega-3-containing grasses and forage, their milk is higher in the health omega-3 fatty acids. While cows raised in conventional settings, fed corn and soy grains, produce milk that’s higher in omega 6s.

The findings affirm the rationale behind organic dairy farming, that a better, more natural diet for cows (which are ruminants who naturally eat grass) results in a better quality product.

But it’s not news that the American Dairy Association is likely to digest well. The ADA has long supported conventional milk, which is what the vast majority of dairy farms produce, as every bit as good as organic.

The ADA explains its position in a statement on organic milk:

There is no difference between organic and regular milk. Both contain the same unique package of nutrients that makes dairy products an important part of a healthy diet. An 8-ounce serving of organic or regular milk offers the same amount of nine essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and potassium.

It may still be true that both types of milk offer those nutrients listed. But the difference in fatty acids between the two types of milk, which is not addressed by the ADA statement, may be a critical one. Medical research continues to laud omega-3s as helping lower the risk of a range of diseases.

Researchers found a stark difference

After analyzing 384 samples of organic and conventional milk from around the country, the research team found that organic milk contained 62 percent more healthful omega-3 fatty acids and 25 percent fewer omega-6s.

With more omega-6s, the conventional milk was found to have a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (of 5.8), which is not considered as heart healthy as a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (of 2.3), which is what was found in the organic milk, the researchers reported.

The ratios are used as a way to determine the health profile of a food, or diet. This method of looking at healthy vs. less healthful oils has evolved because the American diet, which tends to be rife with less-healthful oils, such as those used in fried and snack foods, winds up being far higher in omega-6 oils.

Other research has found that this over-consumption of omega-6s creates an imbalance between omega-6s and omega-3s that contributes to inflammation in the human body. Inflammation, in turn, raises the risk of heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and cancer, according to emerging research.

Recent studies have even found that full-fat milk may be beneficial for reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, the study noted.

With both full-fat foods and omega-3s having been found to have benefits, the types of oils and fatty acids Americans consume are a matter of intense review, and their role in major chronic diseases that affect millions of Americans being examined and reexamined.

Even though it’s well understood that dairy cows consuming grass (a requirement for organic cows) will produce milk richer in omega-3s, the WSU researchers said they weren’t expecting to see such a stark difference between the organic and conventional milk.

“We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study,” said Dr. Charles Benbrook, research professor at WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Dr. Benbrook conceded that all milk has nutritional value, but the organic was better.

Not everyone agrees, however, that milk, no matter the type, is a food humans need to thrive, as the dairy industry suggests. John Robbins, author of Food Revolution and a respected vegetarian authority, notes that people can get bio-available calcium from leafy greens. Robbins, among others, contends that one can get all of his or her needed nutrients, including omega-3s and 6s, from plant foods.

More about those fatty acid oil ratios

Putting aside the debate over whether milk is the best or even a necessary food, the debate over the omega oils centers on the much analyzed and maligned “typical American diet.”

People eating the standard American fare — laden with vegetable oils and fried foods, and too few fruits and vegetables — end up with an omega oil ratio of around 10-1 or even 15-1  (the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s).  This is far from the desirable ratio of around 2 or specifically, 2.3 (2.3 Omega-6s to 1 Omega-1).

The researchers set up a dietary model, a hypothetical, that would take women with a typical ratio for Americans of 11 down to a much healthy oil ratio of 4. The team accomplished this reduction by putting 4 ½ daily servings of full fat organic dairy into this woman’s daily  diet.

(The downside: lots of calories, which Benbrook acknowledged. He told the New York Times this could be offset elsewhere in the daily meal plan.)

By reducing other foods that tend to over supply Americans with omega 6s, the scientific model showed that people could lower their ratio even more, to the desired 2.3.

The team’s analysis of milk also found that full-fat dairy was an even better provider of Omega-3 ALA fats than even fish.

“We were surprised to find that recommended intakes of full-fat milk products supply far more of the major omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, than recommended servings of fish,” said co-author and WSU research associate Donald R. Davis in a statement. (The team did not say what type of fish was used in the comparison.)

Conventional milk had about nine times more ALA than fish while organic milk had 14 times more, Davis said.

Organic milk was also a significant source of two other omega-3 fatty acids considered healthful, EPA and DPA, but not DHA. (Ironicaly, the DHA is exactly what Horizon Organic Milk touts on the front of its milk cartons.)

Organic Valley and the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) provided milk and helped fund the study, but did not play any role in its design or analysis, which was funded by the Measure to Manage Program of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU.

The study is being published on the online journal PLOS ONE.

Organic milk and dairy products are the largest sector of the growing organic food market, worth about $2.62 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2013 Organic Industry Survey. Still, it represents only about 4 percent of the milk sold in the US.