We know that organic produce is healthier for us because it contains fewer pesticides, but did you know that organic milk has significantly more heart-healthy fatty acids than milk from conventional dairy farms?
That was the unexpected finding of a new Washington State University study, the first large-scale comparison of organic milk from grass-fed cows and conventional milk from cows fed mostly corn.
The study, which compared 400 samples of whole organic and conventional milk over 18 months, found that organic whole milk was much higher in the omega-3 oils, which are also found in fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds, that have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
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Conventional whole milk was high in omega-6 fatty acids, typically found in vegetable oils and fried or processed food. Omega-6 oils are beneficial, too, but some recent studies have linked heavy consumption of these fats to heart disease. The American Heart Association cautions that we need them in much lower amounts than omega-3 fats.
Organic dairy farmers have long claimed that the milk from their cows is nutritionally superior to conventional milk. They point out that under government requirements for organic labeling, cows must spend a large amount of time in pasture, eating grass and plants that are naturally high in omega-3. By contrast, cows raised conventionally are fed mostly corn, which is high in omega-6.
Still, researcher Charles Benbrook said the following in a statement: "We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study."
(The new findings don't apply to skim milk, which has all the fatty acids removed. Low-fat and 2 percent milk have lower amounts of these fatty acids as well.)
The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, was partly funded by two organic dairy farm cooperatives, but they were not involved in the design or analysis of the study, researchers said.
The study's results bring up the question of whether we should switch from fat-free to whole milk to get more of milk's nutrients. NPR's food blog notes a growing consumption of whole organic milk. Sales of organic whole milk are up 10 percent this year, said a spokeswoman for Organic Valley, while sales of skim are down 7 percent.
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On the other hand, as the Seattle Times points out, some scientists question whether we should be drinking cows' milk at all. A recent viewpoint column in the journal JAMA Pediatrics by researchers from Harvard Medical School pointed out that humans evolved without it and that there are many other ways to get the calcium needed for bone health.
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