There have been a few studies published in the last year or so that have pointed to the idea that organic food options may not be all that different from non-organic choices. FoodFacts.com certainly understands that there may be any number of reasons that organic doesn’t work for every consumer. Cost is certainly at the top of that list. But we’ve always liked organic options. Most meaningful for us here at FoodFacts.com, the ingredient lists detailed on most organic products are by and large vastly better than those found for non-organic products. But what about nutritional benefits?
At least for milk, we’re now learning that there is a difference between organic and non-organic options. A new study is reporting that whole milk from organic dairies contains far more of some of the fatty acids that contribute to a healthy heart than conventional milk. Drinking whole organic milk may likely lessen the risk factor for heart disease.
The study was headed by Charles M. Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. It is the most clear-cut finding of nutritional advantage of organic food over its non-organic counterpart. Previous studies comparing organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables have not been as conclusive.
Benbrook says that drinking whole organic milk “will certainly lessen the risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”
“All milk is healthy and good for people,” he continued, “but organic milk is better, because it has a more favorable balance of these fatty acids” — omega-3, typically found in fish and flaxseed, versus omega-6, which is abundant in many fried foods like potato chips.
Government regulations for organic labeling require that dairy cows must spend a certain amount of the time in the pasture, eating grassy plants high in omega-3s. Conventional milk comes from cows that are mostly fed corn, which is high in omega-6s. Nonorganic cows that graze in pastures also produce milk with greater amounts of omega-3s.
While this research was largely funded by Organic Valley, a farm cooperative that sells organic dairy products, experts not connected with the study said the findings are credible — though they noted that the role of milk in a healthy diet and the influence of fatty acids in preventing or causing cardiovascular disease are far from settled.
“I think this is a very good piece of work,” said Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health.
The researchers looked at 384 samples of organic and conventional whole milk taken over 18 months around the country. Although the total amount of fat was almost the same, the organic milk contained 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids and 25 percent fewer omega-6s.
The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the organic milk was 2.28, much lower than the 5.77 ratio in conventional milk. (The figures do not apply to nonfat milk, which strips away the fatty acids.)
Nutrition experts broadly agree that omega-3 acids offer numerous health benefits. But experts disagree sharply whether omega-6 consumption should be reduced.
In ancient times, people ate roughly equal amounts of the two fatty acids. Today most Americans now eat more than 10 times as much omega-6, which is prevalent in certain vegetable oils and thus also fried foods, as omega-3.
While omega-6 is essential, some health studies suggest that such a wide disparity is associated with many ills, Dr. Benbrook said. A shift to drinking organic whole milk — and raising consumption from the currently recommended three servings a day to 4.5 — would take a big step to lowering the ratio, he said, although adjustments would have to be made elsewhere in the diet to offset the added calories of the milk fat.
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, did not question the underlying data in the study. But he said the conclusions and recommendations were based on the “false assumption” that omega-6 fatty acids are harmful.
Dr. Willett said omega-6s were actually associated with a lower risk of heart disease, and he called the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s “irrelevant.” People should try to eat more of both, he said.
But Dr. Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health, who has conducted research on the effects of fatty acids on heart disease, said animal studies showed that high levels of omega-6s interfered with omega-3s.
At the same time, though, he cautioned that the mix of omega-3s in milk is different from that in fatty fish. The simple ratio, he said, “is not as meaningful as we would like it to be.”
Still, he endorsed the organic milk recommendation. “You’re heading in the right direction,” he said.
This is great information – even with the differences of opinion noted here. We’re happy to see that although a manufacturer contributed funding for this study; third party experts are comfortable with its methodology and endorsing its results. FoodFacts.com thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to discover that dairy cows fed a different diet will produce milk offering a different nutritional profile. Organic whole milk appears to offer a distinct nutritional advantage. So if you’re considering where to start incorporating organic products into your diet, organic whole milk may be a great place to begin!