Every time I cruise by the dairy isle of the grocery store my eyes fixate on the high price of organic milk. As a mom always trying to keep the food bill down, I keep asking myself if it’s really worth it to buy organic. So I did what I always do when faced with such a question: I put my research hat on.
But this one isn’t so easy. There aren’t studies showing that kids or adults who drink organic milk are better off than those who don’t. Instead, there are many theories as to why organic might be better. So I take what little is out there and build my case.
What you get with organic
In order for milk to be labeled as USDA Certified Organic, the cows producing the milk cannot be treated with antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones and their diet must be free of pesticides. So when you buy organic milk, you know that the milk is free of these additives.
Does this make organic milk better?
According to the National Dairy Council’s website,there is no difference between regular milk and organic in terms of quality, safety and nutrition. All milk is tested for antibiotics and is discarded if traces our found. They also state that extensive studies have found no difference between cows treated with rBST (Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin) and those without. And they say tests conclude that milk has the lowest levels of pesticides of all agriculture products.
According to the Organic Center, more sensitive government testing completed in 2004 demonstrates that milk contains more pesticides than previously thought (an average of 2.8 per sample). The good news is the amount of chemicals found was still far below safety levels. But because milk plays such a key role in the diet of growing children whose nervous and immune systems are still developing, there’s the unanswered question of the potential long-term effects.
There has also been speculation (and specific theories as to why that I won’t go into here) about the harmful effects of treating cows with rBST to help boost their milk supply. Even though research to support this is lacking, some conventional milk products have stopped using it (you’ve probably seen the label “milk from cows not treated with rBST”) and countries like Canada and the European Union have banned use of the hormone in dairy farming.
Is all organic milk created equal?
While everyone is focused on the use of antibiotics and hormones on cows, the most important factor nutritionally may be the diet of the cows. Cows fed (outdoors) diets of natural grass and clover (called “pasture feeding”) are superior nutritionally to cows fed (indoors) of grain, soy and other ingredients. A 2008 study published in Journal of the Study of Food and Agriculturefound that “pasture-fed” cows had lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of monounsaturated fat, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and certain antioxidants. Preliminary evidence shows that CLA may have anti-cancer effects.
While most organic cows are more likely to have been pasture-fed, this may not always be the case. According to The Cornucopia Institute, a national organic watchdog representing family farmers, some of the large companies producing organic milk may not be following through with pasture feeding due to the sheer number of cows they have. The USDA requirements say that cows that produce organic milk should have “access to pasture” but that doesn’t always mean they get it.
In order to helps consumers get the most bang for the organic buck, The Cornucopia Institute rated dairy farmers on various criteria. Check it out.
I take a conservative stance when it comes to feeding my children, which is why I choose to buy organic milk for my daughter – and will do the same when my son drinks milk after turning one. As for me and my husband who drink fat-free milk, sometimes I buy organic and sometimes I don’t. I have started looking for milk that comes from “pasture-fed” cows. I think this is especially important for babies and toddlers who are drinking whole and reduced fat milk.
I wish there was more data on this subject but I still feel good about my choice. Let other parents know what you have decided.
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Reference and Resources
National Dairy Council
Butler G, Nielson JH, Slots T, Seal C, Eyre MD, Sanderson R, Leifer C. Fatty acid and fat-soluble antioxidant concentrations in milk from hi- and low-input conventional and organic systems: seasonal variation. J Sci Food Agric. 2008; 88:1431-44.