Organic cows peacefully grazing on lush green organic pastures and producing gallons of beautiful fresh creamy wholesome organic milk! It’s a picture of a utopian world! But…quite apart from the general health considerations of being organic (you can read all about those here) are there really any particular health benefits to be had from drinking organic milk?
How Is Organic Milk Made?
First of all, let’s take a look at what organic milk is and how it’s made. Organic milk is produced by organically managed dairy animals that are not treated with growth hormones like BGH (bovine growth hormone). Any pesticide treatments used on or in them, such as tick or lice treatment, wormers and the like, are made from natural ingredients. Any animals that require treatment with antibiotics are removed from the herd and not used in the milk production process for 12 months.
Those lush green pastures they’re grazing on – they’re certified free of artificial, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides as well. If fed additional feed like grain, hay or nutritional supplements, those are also organically grown and produced.
The other aspect of organic animal husbandry is that the animals themselves are supposed to live a lifestyle that is as close to their natural way of life as possible. For ruminants like dairy cattle, this theoretically means being allowed to live in large, open paddocks spending their days doing what cows do best. Which is eating and sleeping….! And producing gallons of fresh, creamy organic milk! They’re not supposed to be fed excessive amounts of protein to increase their milk yield. Organic dairy farmers say this means an organically managed dairy animal generally lives longer by virtue of not being worn out producing unnaturally high quantities of milk. It’s a bit like those commercially bred high egg producing varieties of poultry that usually live much shorter lives than ‘normal’ breeds because they ‘wear out’ faster from producing all those eggs!
So that’s the production side of things taken care of. Thus far it’s been 100% organic. What happens to the milk once those cows have been milked and the milk is on its way to the processing plant?
Even Organic Milk Must Be Pasteurized
All milk, regardless of whether it’s organic or non-organic, must be pasteurized for human consumption. In many countries, the sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption is illegal; in others it’s tightly regulated. Unpasteurized or raw milk, even organic, can potentially carry harmful bacteria like E coli, listeria and salmonella. These organisms can be present in fecal matter, which may contaminate the animal’s teats and get into their milk during the milking process. The pasteurization process involves heating the milk to destroy any of these microorganisms in it.
Once the milk has been pasteurized, most of it is then homogenized. Homogenization is a process that involves breaking down the fat molecules so that they integrate into the milk rather than separating and sitting on the surface. Both homogenized and unhomogenized milk can be found on most grocery store shelves. The unhomogenized one is the one with a few millimeters of raw cream sitting on the top!
After pasteurization and homogenization, the milk is bottled for sale and wends its way to your local grocery store shelves. Organic milk will carry organic labeling and it usually costs quite a bit more than non-organic milk, which is one of the biggest disadvantages of organic milk. Is it really worth the additional cost? Dedicated organic fans will tell you it is. Most other consumers will likely tell you it’s not!
Nutritional Benefits Of Organic Milk Vs Regular Milk – Are There Any?
So what are some of the perceived nutritional benefits of organic milk vs regular milk?
Various European research institutes and universities carried out a study funded by the European Community and the Sheepdrove Trust. The study looked at research into nutritional differences between organic and non-organic milk carried out between 1992 and 2014. Researchers found there were some reported differences. Notably, organic milk does contain more of the important omega-3 fatty acid – on average about 56% more. It contains 69% more ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) and 41% more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). It also has marginally higher levels of vitamin E and iron. Conversely though it is slightly lower in 2 other important compounds, namely selenium and iodine. Selenium helps protect cells from damage and the thyroid requires iodine to produce its body regulating thyroid hormone. Saturated fat content was similar in both organic and non-organic milks.
It’s What The Cows Eat That Makes The Difference!
Researchers also looked into what could be causing these nutritional differences and found that in most cases, particularly with respect to omega-3 levels, it came down to the animal husbandry methods employed in maintaining the dairy animals. Dairy animals with more access to grazing, as is generally the case with organically managed animals, produce milk that is significantly higher in omega-3. This grazing is generally a combination of grass and silage.
However, these beneficial fats are found in the fat component of the milk, most of which is removed from low-fat and fat free dairy products. Therefore, to obtain any of the benefits of the higher levels of beneficial fats in organic milk, consumers would need to eat and drink full fat organic dairy products. Many health conscious consumers though have switched from full fat to low fat dairy products to reduce their saturated fat intake. Whether they’d switch back again when there are other available sources of these beneficial fats is debatable.
Organic Milk Has Less Contaminants
Other studies have found that whilst organic milk and milk products don’t contain chemical pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer residues, the levels in non-organic dairy products are still well under the consumption safety thresholds. Organic dairy animals treated with antibiotics are removed from the milking herd for twelve months. Non-organic dairy animals treated with antibiotics are also removed from the milking herd and not allowed back in until their milk tests clear of antibiotics. Regular testing for antibiotics is also carried out on tanks of fresh milk Therefore these contaminant concerns are probably minor for most dairy product consumers, particularly those concerned about the relative cost of organic products compared to the perceived benefits!
Organic Dairy Animals Are Happier
Organic dairy farms will tell you their dairy animals are happier, healthier animals courtesy of the more natural environment they live in. However, organic certification standards only require that these animals have ‘some’ access to pasture. There is no specified minimum duration of how long this ‘time spent in the pasture’ must be. So that idyllic picture of contented organic dairy cows spending their days leisurely grazing 24/7 in rich green organic pastures may not always be what really happens! Particularly on larger commercial organic dairy farms. It could very well be that the expensive organic milk you’re considering buying was actually produced by cows that are only turned out to pasture for an hour or two daily.
The final argument for organic milk and dairy products is taste. For many people, this may be the deciding factor. Once again though, blind taste tests of organic and non-organic foods in general have found that many people can’t tell the difference!
The Pros And Cons Of Organic Milk And Dairy Products
As with everything, the decision to go with organic products, including dairy, boils down to personal choice. Research has thus far found very little evidence that organically produced anything is significantly healthier for you than non-organic versions of those products. Having said that, organic products do have less contaminants but non-organic products are generally well below harmful thresholds for human consumption. Organic products are, on the whole, produced using sustainable, environmentally friendly methods. Non-organic products may not be – the end consumer has very little way of knowing how they’re produced. Organically farmed livestock do on the whole live healthier, happier lives than their non-organic counterparts, which for many consumers is an important ethical consideration. Ultimately, these considerations may well make the extra costs involved in buying organic products worthwhile.
But it would be a mistake to assume that using or consuming organics products is going to miraculously lead to better health. Better health and fitness comes from eating a balanced diet, regardless of whether it’s organic or not. It comes from living a healthier lifestyle overall, with or without organic products. It comes from cutting out the alcohol and smoking if you indulge in those pursuits. No amount of organic ‘stuff’ is going to redress the damage caused by habits like those!