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Organic milk is healthier? Don’t swallow it

The claim that organic milk is richer in omega-3s than conventional milk - and therefore better for us - is a lot of bull.

Alex Avery

Topics Science & Tech

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The popular press is going cow-wild over research that supposedly proves ‘organic’ milk is healthier than ‘conventional’ milk. Not quite. Just as two cents might be twice as much as a penny, neither amounts to wealth.

The issue is omega-3 fatty acids, found abundantly in oily fish (such as salmon, herring and cod), fish oil, walnut and flaxseed oil. Omega-3s have been thought to protect against cancer and heart disease, though the scientific evidence for these benefits has been thin and somewhat elusive.

Now a group of researchers – funded by the organic industry – is claiming that milk from 19 ‘conventional’ farms only contains 60 per cent as much omega-3s as milk from 17 ‘organic’ farms. They claim the finding is ‘significant’, and the press believed it. One newspaper headline in the UK declared: ‘Organic milk: it looks good, it tastes good and by golly they’ve proved it does you good.’

The researchers found no other differences, but the increased omega-3 levels were enough for the British organic industry to lobby the government to allow it to claim that its milk is ‘healthier’. The British Food Standards Agency says it will review the matter but has yet to be convinced that organic milk is any more nutritious.

The FSA is right to be wary. The organic food industry has been claiming superior nutrition without evidence for nearly 100 years, and there is little in the new research to change that conclusion.

First, the study really compared pasture-fed cows to cows fed hay and grain. British organic rules mandate that at least 60 per cent of a cow’s feed over the course of a full year come from pastures or stored pasture hay produced on the farm. This limits the amount of grain and feed rations the animals can consume. Conventionally raised cows given a primarily pasture-based diet would have the same minor omega-3 levels as organic cows. In contrast to the UK, where the climate allows for pasture-based dairying for much of the year, the majority of organic milk in the US and Canada is from cows fed grain, soy and hay. Many conventional dairies in both countries pasture their cows when they can, but feed during the cold and dry months.

Second, omega-3 levels varied widely, both by season and between farms, including the organic ones. You really have no way of knowing if you’re getting the higher omega-3 levels that the organic marketers seem to promise.

Third, milk simply isn’t a major source of omega-3 in our diets no matter how it is produced. A modest four ounce serving of salmon provides 60 to 90 times more omega-3s than the difference between an eight ounce glass of UK organic and conventional whole milk.

‘Healthy’ reduced- and low-fat milk have even less omega-3s because those are removed with the other fats. You’d have to drink six to nine gallons of expensive UK organic low-fat milk to equal the amount of omega-3 in a £2 salmon fillet. And remember, US and Canadian organic milk has even less omega-3 because most is from cows fed grain and hay.

Feed manufacturers are aware of the consumer allure of omega-3s and are adding omega-enhancing oils to animal feeds. They are also researching ways to breed or bioengineer new crop varieties to produce omega-rich feeds at lower cost and with far fewer natural resources than organic farming.

A far more important question, however, is whether omega-3s even have the health benefits claimed for them. The most recent research indicates they don’t.

An extensive review of past research published early this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association says consuming more omega-3s isn’t likely to reduce your cancer risk. The researchers concluded, ‘A large body of literature…does not provide evidence to suggest a significant association between omega-3 fatty acids and cancer incidence.’

Another review of studies from 2002 to 2006 published in April in the British Medical Journal concludes that, ‘Long chain and shorter chain omega 3 fats’ – such as those found in milk – ‘do not have a clear effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events, or cancer.’

So the research funded by the organic industry doesn’t add up to any meaningful health benefits whatsoever. Empty nutritional superiority claims are the norm in the multi-billion dollar organic food industry and have been for over 50 years. The bottom line is that milk is milk. If you’re really concerned about getting enough omega-3s in your diet, save the organic price premiums and buy your family a good salmon dinner instead.

Alex Avery lives and works in the beautiful farm country of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, USA, with his wife and son, where he conducts food policy analysis for the Hudson Institute. His forthcoming book, The Truth About Organic Foods, will be published in late September.

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Topics Science & Tech

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