Is Organic Milk Better for You? It Might Be

Cattle being raised on a rotational grazing scale in Shade, Ohio Photograph by Peter Hoffman/Redux

Into the already muddy debate over the benefits of organic food comes new research that suggests organic milk has more heart-healthy fatty acids than conventional milk. The study, published Monday in the online journal Plos One, was based on tests of nearly 400 samples of organic and conventional milk over an 18-month period; it is a bold counterclaim to last year’s widely discussed Stanford study that found little evidence supporting the idea that organic food was more nutritious.

The researchers, led by Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, looked at the ratio between the fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3 in organic and conventional milk. Some scientists have argued that higher ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 lead to greater health risks, and Benbrook found the ratios were more than twice as high in conventional milk as they are in organic milk, which the researchers say is due to a greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on organic dairy farms.

The authors say it is the first large and wide national comparison of organic and conventional milk. But like most studies about organic food, it does little to settle the issue. For one thing, Benbrook once worked as the chief scientist for the Organic Center, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote scientific research about organics. For another, scientists disagree as to whether omega-3 fatty acids are healthier than omega-6 fatty acids, which challenges the entire premise of Benbrook’s study.

Benbrook, in an interview, said the study is hardly an indictment of non-organic milk. To the contrary, he said, drinking all types of milk provides healthy omega fatty acids; it’s just that organic milk does better.

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