At one time, milk was milk – it came from a cow or, possibly a goat. You simply didn’t have the options you do today. These days, you can find a multitude of dairy and non-dairy options, gracing store shelves. Even if you stick with dairy milk, you have choices – low-fat, fat-free, full-fat, and even lactose-free milk.
Of course, there’s also organic milk, available at a higher price than conventional milk. You might wonder whether paying extra for organic milk is really worth it. Is organic milk better for your health and does it offer nutritional advantages? Let’s look at the pros and cons of organic milk versus conventional milk.
Is Organic Milk More Nutritious?
Organic milk isn’t significantly more nutritious than conventional milk. Research shows it has slightly more short-chain omega-3 fats than conventional milk does. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and may lower the risk of some health problems. Yet, studies supporting the health benefits of omega-3s apply mainly to long-chain omega-3s, such as those in fatty fish. Less than 5% of short-chain omega-3s are actually converted to the more beneficial, long-chain ones. So, getting more short-chain omega-3s isn’t necessarily a major health benefit, especially when you can get long-chain omega-3s from fatty fish.
So, in general, organic milk isn’t nutritionally superior to conventional milk. An exception would be organic milk from grass-fed cows. A study showed that milk from grass-fed cows contains higher quantities of conjugated linoleic acid or CLA. Plus, milk from grass-fed cattle contains more vitamin K2, a vitamin that recent studies have linked with heart and bone health.
Keep in mind that organic and grass-fed milk isn’t the same thing. Grass-fed milk comes from cows that are fed only grass and hay, no grains. There’s no guarantee that the grass they ate wasn’t treated with pesticides unless the cows were raised organically. In contrast, organic milk comes from cattle that were not exposed to pesticides but they may have eaten grains rather than grass. Grass-fed cows may also have received hormones and antibiotics, whereas it’s a violation of organic standards to give these to cows that produce milk marked as organic.
What about Hormones and Antibiotics?
One difference between organic milk and milk from conventional cows is the latter is more likely to have been treated with bovine growth hormone, or BGH. Bovine growth hormone boosts milk production so the cattle make more milk and the factory farm makes more profit. The problem with BGH is your body can convert it to another hormone called IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone. IGF-1 stimulates the growth of cells as well and is linked with a greater risk of breast and prostate cancer.
Should you be concerned about BGH? Even if milk contains BGH, it’s not clear whether enough of it makes it into your bloodstream to boost IGF-1. Remember, milk is pasteurized. The pasteurization process may destroy some of the BGH and your digestive tract breaks some of it down too. Still, a study showed that adults who drink dairy milk regularly had IGF-1 levels that were 10% higher than those who didn’t.
Dairy proponents will argue that the amount of BGH you absorb is small – but what if you drink milk every day? Those small exposures add up. Cows that produce organic milk do not receive BGH. Yet, any cow that produces milk has high levels of hormones circulating in their bloodstream. When you drink dairy milk, you absorb some of the natural hormones the cow produces.
Then there’s the issue of antibiotics. It’s true that conventional milk cattle may receive antibiotics whereas cattle that produce milk labeled organic do not routinely receive antibiotics. The question is whether any of the antibiotics end up in the carton of milk you buy at the grocery store. Batches of milk are routinely monitored for antibiotic residues and are rejected if they’re above a certain level. This doesn’t mean that there are no antibiotics in conventional milk but the amount is below what is deemed significant. Again, it may be an issue of how much dairy milk you drink. If you guzzle several glasses a day, even trace quantities of antibiotics could have an impact on your gut bacteria.
You Have Non-Dairy Options as Well
You might decide that neither organic or non-organic dairy milk is right for you. No problem. These days, you have a growing array of non-dairy milk alternatives to choose from, including “milk” made from nuts and grains. If you choose one, do your research. Most contain added sugar, although “no added sugar” options are also available. Some non-dairy options are lower in protein than dairy milk. Many also have less calcium and vitamin D, although most brands fortify their milk alternatives with vitamins and minerals.
Another potential concern is the emulsifiers in milk alternatives. Manufacturers add emulsifiers to thicken and improve the texture of their milk beverages. Is that a bad thing? Some preliminary research suggests that emulsifiers may disrupt healthy gut bacteria. As you know, having a healthy population of gut bacteria may protect against some health problems, based on preliminary research. An obvious advantage, if you’re lactose-intolerant, is the fact that milk alternatives contain no lactose.
Which should you choose? Explore all of the options. If you’re looking for a non-dairy alternative that’s high in protein, soy milk is a reasonable alternative. Hemp milk has more omega-3s than other non-dairy milk alternatives and usually more protein. Since almond milk is made from almonds, it tends to be slightly higher in vitamin E. As you can see, there’s a lot of variation in the nutritional value of non-dairy milk alternatives. You might also find that you prefer the taste of one more than another.
The Bottom Line
Organic milk doesn’t offer significant nutritional advantages, but buying it may reduce your exposure to BGH – a hormone that’s associated with cancer. Keep in mind that even organic milk may contain natural hormones from the cow. Plus, both organic and conventional milk have lactose, although lactose-free dairy milk is also available. If you decide to go dairy-free, pick your milk alternative wisely. Alternative milk beverages don’t have the same nutritional profile as dairy milk unless the manufacturer adds nutrients back in.
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