Modest Moderate Fare

Conventional vs. Organic Milk: Milk 101 Series Part 2/4

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I spent most of my childhood in a country home on four acres of land. Lest you get the wrong idea {that idea being an athletic child spending all her waking hours outdoors}, let me say that I idled away most of my summers indoors, nestled with books, immersing myself in other worlds. However, when I did step out to, as my mom would say "blow the stink off of you," I observed the surrounding corn fields and plots of pasture with curious and imaginative eyes. Seeing the cows that peppered the landscape, I imagined they were treated with kindness, given sturdy names like Wilbur, Bruno, and Frank, and were hand-milked by farmers' daughters. {Yes, I had quite the imagination.}

Years later, Food Inc, among other groundbreaking documentaries, shattered my dairy illusion. Moreover, it prompted me to take a hard look at where my dairy came from and if it mattered to me. As I discussed in my first post on milk, in the decision tree on whether or not to consume cow's milk, opting out entirely is always an option. But today I am going to be talking about the other side of the tree. Should you choose to consume cow's milk, does it make a difference to consume conventional or organic milk?

Nutritional Breakdown: Conventional vs. Organic Cow's Milk

We know that cow's milk is a great source of protein as well as vitamins and minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D. However, are there any nutritional differences between conventional cow's milk and organic milk? 

In order to fully understand this, let's grasp the big picture. When we consume animal products, be it meat, fat, or dairy, we are essentially eating what the animals have eaten in a lesser concentration. When it comes to the organic label, a cow's diet is more grasses and pasture-based than a conventional cow's diet. By law, organic cows are required access to the outdoors year-round and must have grasses make up a part of their diet during the grazing season. Additionally, organic cows are not treated with hormones or antibiotics.

By contrast, conventional cows are fed a commercial grain or corn-based feed, kept mostly indoors, and are given antibiotics and hormones to increase milk production. {However, it is important to realize that access to pasture and other things are not required by conventional farming practices BUT some farms, especially small, family-owned farms do give special care to their cows. Best way to find out is to chat with the farmer yourself or check out their website!}

So now for the nutritional difference: Because organic cows feed on more grasses, and grasses are high in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, organic milk contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, one study revealed that organic milk packed in 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. Just as a quick refresher, omega-3 fatty acids perform beneficial anti-inflammatory functions throughout the body. {For more info on omega-3s read here. }

Other than the far as we know organic dairy and conventional dairy are pretty nutritionally comparable. 

Other Reasons to Consider Organic Milk

Of course, more crosses our minds in the dairy aisle than just nutrition-specific considerations. Animal welfare is often equated with organic practices. This is easily imagined - wouldn't you rather be eating out {at pasture} on a sunny day than indoors? Additionally, the added hormones and antibiotics given to conventional cows cause concern to many in a world becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

However, while it might be tempting to romanticize organic milk, it is important to note that there are huge quality differences being discovered amongst organic dairy companies. In order for a farm to be certified organic, it must be inspected once a year to make sure it is up to organic standards. But rather than the USDA sending an impartial inspector, farms are charged with hiring their own inspection agency. This conflict of interest led the Cornucopia Institute, an independent organization, to thoroughly investigate and rank organic dairy companies on their adherence to organic farming practices. {Read more here} While small family farms topped the rankings, here are some of the top best and worst ranked well-known organic dairy companies: (see full list here

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The Takeaway

Organic or conventional dairy? As always, it is all about what you care about. Organic dairy has recently been shown to have a nutritional edge on conventional dairy by containing more omega-3 fatty acids. However, as more corporations take on "organic," it is important to be vigilant about where your money is going and if it's paying for what you think it is. 

I know this was just a small slice of the "organic dairy" conversation, but hopefully it provided some helpful insights, especially into the nutritional implications of organic. Tune in the next couple weeks as I continue this Milk 101 Series with the following topics:

  • Skim, reduced fat, whole milk - should you care?
  • What kind of alternative milk is best?