Organic vs Conventional Milk – What’s the Difference?

Utah Organic Dairy Farm

A scientific paper published late last year comparing the fatty acid profile of organic and conventional whole milk raised some questions. Here are some thoughts about the paper and what it means for you…

The difference between organic and conventional dairy foods is rooted in on-farm practices. To become a certified organic dairy farm, farmers must meet the additional requirements of USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which, in addition to other standards, stipulates that organic farmers must use only organic fertilizers and pesticides; they are also not allowed to give their cows antibiotics or supplemental hormones, nor are they able to graze or feed their animals with GMO crops.

All milk and dairy foods, whether they are produced conventionally or organically, deliver a powerhouse of nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein, and adding milk to your diet is a excellent way to boost overall nutrition and maintain health. As dairy customers, you always have a choice and can purchase whatever type of milk best fits with your lifestyle, but all milk offers excellent nutrition.

A recent study, published in late 2013 by researchers at Washington State University, took a look at the fatty acid profile of organic vs. conventional whole milk over 18 months. They found a small, yet statistically significant, difference in the amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids between the two types of milk with organic milk having a higher percentage of omega-3 fats.

What are Omega-3 & Omega-6 fatty acids?

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are considered essential fats, meaning that we must get them from food sources (our bodies cannot make them), and each of these fats play an important role in our body’s metabolism. Omega-3 fats are considered anti-inflammatory, and health professionals encourage us to get more of these healthy fats from foods like fish, nuts and seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids are considered pro-inflammatory and found primarily in vegetable oils. We still need them and they are essential for a healthy body, but it’s the ratio that’s important. The typical American diet has too many omega-6 fats and too few omega-3’s, so health professionals encourage more more omega-3 containing foods and less omega-6 rich foods in order to improve this ratio.

Where does dairy fit into the equation?

Dairy foods don’t play a big role in this ratio. Milk is neither a primary source of omega-3 nor omega-6 fatty acids, and it is unlikely that a shift in milk choice from conventional to organic would impact the overall dietary ratio of these fatty acids.  Instead, if your goal is to increase omega-3 fatty acids, the dietary focus should be on oily fish like salmon and sardines and to a lesser extent nuts and seeds.

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Also note that this study looked only at whole milk products since low-fat and fat-free milk have had the fat removed. While there is new and exciting research emerging about the health benefits of full-fat dairy foods, including whole milk in the diet will raise overall calories, which would necessitate a shift in other dietary choices to maintain caloric balance. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and most health professionals continue to recommend low-fat and fat-free dairy foods as a way to help reduce overall caloric intake and curb the obesity epidemic.

In this study’s analysis, the focus was on comparing the amount and types of fat between organically and conventionally produced whole milk. The authors did not examine or compare the amounts of other vitamins and minerals, which is primary the reason many people choose dairy products.

So the bottom line is that both organic and conventional dairy foods are an excellent source of high quality nutrient-rich calories. To boost omega-3 fatty acids, look to other sources like fatty fish, nuts and seeds. When it comes to organic or conventional, choose the type of dairy that is right for your lifestyle.

More information about the fatty acid profile comparison from PhD, Greg Miller can be found on The Dairy Report.

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