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Ethical benefits important in drinking organic milk

When consumers shop for milk, it's amazing the choices they face—and they thought it would be simple just to pick up a litre or two. There is milk with different fat levels, there is lactose-free, flavoured or plain, organic or conventionally produced, not to mention all the non-dairy products posing as “milk.” With time, shoppers figure out what they prefer and which variety best matches their family's nutritional needs.

In a search to feed their children the healthiest diet, one recurring question for some is whether to choose regular milk or opt for organic. If indeed there are tangible advantages especially in the area of nutrition, many are willing to pay the extra money at the till.

It should be noted that in terms of quality, safety and nutrition, there is virtually no difference between organic and regular milk. Cup for cup, the two varieties of milk contain the same essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, protein and potassium—necessary for optimum health—in similar quantities. All milk is pasteurized, refrigerated and delivered to stores within a few days after milking, and stringent government regulations ensure that milk is wholesome and safe. This is true of all dairy products including cottage cheese, yogurt, cream, butter, ice cream and cheese.

It's necessary, however, to consider the claims of organic milk as being nutritionally superior to conventional milk. Any differences that might occur come as a result of farm management practices—and there are several important differences.

Synthetic fertilizers

So-called organic milk comes from cows allowed to graze, supplemented by certified organic feed which has been grown on fields free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and which includes no mammalian or poultry by-products. Animals raised organically are not allowed to be fed any antibiotics, synthetic hormones or other artificial drugs. All in all, organic farms use far less energy considering all the machines that run on conventional farms, and the distances from farm gate to market. So we can agree that organic farms are more environmentally friendly, preserving ground water and bolstering the health of soil, in addition to reducing energy in the form of fuel.

What does this do to the health of the animal itself and the products that flow from livestock to consumers? It is a well-known fact that many pesticides have a tendency to concentrate in animal fat, so while one cannot say with certainty these toxic substances make their way into milk and other dairy products, the risk of this is greater with regular milk. This may also be the case with antibiotics and hormones. However, that being said, milk and products from conventional farms are also tested for drug, pesticide and hormone residues, and are considered safe to drink once they reach market. In the end, it may be a question of ethics that helps choose between organic or conventional milk products—how humanely is the animal treated, and how is the environment being dealt with?

More omega-3

While protein, vitamin and total fat content may be the same in organic and regular milk products, a few studies have shown several health advantages with organic milk. Some research has shown that organic milk has more omega-3 fatty acids. This has varied from study to study since content of omega-3—important in heart health and reducing inflammations—is dependent on the type of feed livestock consumes. While a high omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk is, indeed, a benefit, it must be noted that this is not the type of omega-3 found in fatty fish—and thus of lesser benefit.

Limited studies have also shown organic milk may have a higher concentration of antioxidants, especially lutein and zeaxanthin—both important for eye health in helping prevent cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.

While there are other health benefits of organic milk that have been noted, more long-term studies involving farms in Canada need to be performed. Whether consumers use regular milk, cottage cheese or yogurt, or the organic counterparts, dairy products should be an essential part of the diet of both children and adults. Milk and its products are a good source of calcium for maintaining strong bones and teeth (with vitamin D to assist), protein for growth and repair of cells, and a whole range of vitamins and minerals for various metabolic functions.

While small kids need whole milk (three to four percent milk fat) for energy, adults may want to stay with low or zero fat options which provide all the nutrients with little or no fat (including less saturated fat and cholesterol). The range of milk products is so wide, there is sure to be something in the dairy family for everyone, even if, say, someone is not fond of milk (the exception is an intolerance to lactose). While all milk products have similar health benefits as milk, each has a slightly different nutrient profile, with yogurt being especially nutritious. Even butter in moderation has a place in a healthy diet—much superior to margarine.