There are so many choices in the dairy aisle these days. Low fat, non fat, non dairy, organic, and the list goes on! How do you choose the right kind for you and your family? If you are still a dairy milk drinker, you've likely heard the claims made for organic milk touting its health benefits, and you've likely heard the other side of the story supporting conventional milk saying that there's no difference so why pay twice as much for the same product? Which one is actually better, or is there any difference at all between organic and conventional milk?
Oftentimes, organic products receive a gold star for health, but some companies "greenwash" consumers to think that organic products are healthier and more nutritious than their conventional competition. Organic does not refer to a product's nutritional value, but instead refers to the way it has been farmed and produced without the use of synthetic materials like some pesticides and antibiotics. However, strict FDA and USDA requirements require all food products, organic and conventional, to be safe for consumption regardless of the way it was produced.
There are specific regulatory differences between conventional and organic milk.
Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH): BGH is given to dairy cows to increase milk production, but organic cows are not allowed BGH injections. The FDA approved BGH in 1993, but there is worry that cows injected with BGH may produce more insulin-like growth factor hormones, which may cause illness in humans if ingested excessively.
Pesticides: Organic cows may not consume food treated with synthetic pesticides. There is no regulation for conventional cows. Not all pesticides are synthetically produced and some natural pesticides are permitted in organic production.
Pasture Feeding: Organic cows must have access to pastures for feeding. However, the amount of time a cow may spend on the pasture likely varies according to the size of the farm. The terms for this regulation are not specific regarding the amount of time a cow must spend at pasture likely varies according to the size of the farm. Conventional cows may spend time at pasture, but there is no requirement either way for pasturing or feed only.
Antibiotics: Conventional cows may be treated with antibiotics for health and safety of the animal. When an organic dairy cow needs to be treated with an antibiotic, they are not to be denied treatment for their health. However, that cow is not allowed back into the herd for 12 months after they are certified as antibiotic free. Non-organic dairy cows can be returned back to the herd as soon as they are antibiotic free.
Organic and conventional milk have been shown to carry the same amount of vitamins and minerals. Some studies argue that organic milk has more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, found in nuts and fish, and comparatively less saturated fat content than conventional milk. This may be due to the required time spent at pasture consuming grassy plants high in omega-3s. Cows fed a corn-based diet produce milk with a higher value of omega-6 fatty acids. A diet too high in omega-6 and not enough omega-3 may lead to health problems such as heart disease.
The jury is still out regarding a difference in flavor between organic and conventional milk. Flavor profiles of milk vary by breed of cow and specific diet for each dairy cow. It's best to taste test types and percents of milk to determine which variety you and your family prefer.
Your budget may also determine which variety of milk to choose. Conventional milk, depending on the dairy farm and your grocer, is typically cheaper than organic milk. If you are a big milk drinker and go through a carton or two per week, the higher cost of organic milk may not fit your budget. However, consider that many organic milks are ultrapasturized so they will last longer in your fridge. If you don't consume much milk and worry about it spoiling, the higher cost of organic milk up front may be smarter for you if it lasts longer in the fridge.
Whichever variety you choose, milk does a body good and is a healthy addition to your diet!
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