By Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center
Exciting New Research
One of the most exciting studies to come out this year details the nutritional benefits of organic dairy. The study, which was published by The Organic Center’s past Chief Scientist and current research professor at Washington State University, Chuck Benbrook in collaboration with four other researchers, shows that organic milk has a healthier nutritional profile than conventional milk.
Specifically, the researchers examined omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratios in organic milk (sourced from Organic Valley), and compared them to conventionally produced milk. They found that organic milk contained 25 percent less omega-6 fatty acids and 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, yielding a 2.5-fold higher omega-6: omega-3 ratio in conventional compared to organic milk.
Omega Fatty Acid Profiles and Why They’re Important
While humans are evolutionarily adapted to an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of between 1:1 and 2:1, Western diets are high in omega-6 fatty acids, and low in omega-3 fatty acids, resulting in an average ratio of 15:1 to 16.7:1. This asymmetry in fatty acid profiles has been linked with many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Low omega-6:omega-3 ratios, on the other hand, suppress these conditions. For example, one study found that a ratio of 4:1 was associated with a 70 percent decrease in mortality due to cardiovascular disease. This study also found that low ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and reduced asthma severity. Other studies have showed how low omega-6:omega-3 ratios result in a decreased risk of breast cancer.
The idea that organic dairy is healthier than conventional dairy is not new. For example, a study published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2006 showed similar results when they looked at milk samples in England. The study concludes that “organic dairy farms in the United Kingdom produce milk with a higher omega 3 fatty acid content throughout the year.”
What’s so exciting about the research that was published this month by Dr. Benbrook et al. is that it’s the first time that researchers have taken a long-term look at how farming practices affects milk quality throughout the United States. The study itself was done over an entire year, and took 220 organic and 164 conventional samples into account from dairies around the United States.
Other Benefits of Organic Dairy
If you’re looking for more reasons for why organic milk is better for you than conventional milk, there are several studies showing that by drinking organic milk, you can avoid exposure to dangerous pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For example, a study out of Cornell showed that bacteria collected from dairy herds on conventional farms were more resistant to antibiotics than those on organic farms. There are also numerous studies about the environmental benefits of organic dairy farming, such as this study out of Germany showing that organic dairy farming emits around 200 grams less CO2 per kilogram of milk than conventional farms with the same milk yield.
In the light of so many studies about organic dairy, there is no controversy about its superiority over conventional dairy products. Choosing organic allows people to benefit from the improved nutritional profile, while avoiding potential hazardous compounds. These are important facts to keep in mind when you’re browsing the grocery aisles.
Jessica Shade is the director of science programs for The Organic Center. At this position she leads research focused on investigating the science behind organic food and farming. In addition to scientific research, Dr. Shade is dedicated to food system science communication, collaboration, environmental education, and social equity and inclusion in the sciences.