Organic vs. Regular Milk--Is It Worth Your Money?
What Is Organic Milk?
When you shop in your dairy section you might see regular milk on sale for dirt cheap, and then organic, hormone free milk advertised at twice the price. Why is this type of milk more expensive, and is it worth your extra money? Are there any health benefits (or detriments) to buying either type? What does "certified organic" mean?
This article aims to bring to you the information and facts I have found--on both sides of the argument--and let you decide for yourself. Before I delve into the pros and cons of organic vs. regular, lets define what "organic milk" really is.
According the the United Stated Department of Agriculture organic milk must meet 4 criteria in order to be labeled "USDA Organic."
The first thing has to do from the ground up. No harmful pesticides or fertilizers (organic only) are allowed in the feed the cows eat.
The second is no bovine growth hormones (BGH) are allowed to increase milk production. There's no genetic mutation or irradiation permitted.
Third is no antibiotics are allowed, and if a cow does need to be treated it will not be returned to the herd for a year to make sure the antibiotics are out of its system.
And fourth has to do with grazing time. Organic cows must have "access to pasture." Much like "free range chicken," this has a lot of interpretations from being out in the pasture all day to only limited grazing time.
So those are the definitions--let's delve into the discussions.
Why does it cost so much?
If you've ever browsed the dairy section you've probably noticed the substantial difference in price between regular milk and organic milk. Its often almost double the price of regular milk.
The reason for this is it costs more to raise organic cows. Everything from bedding to feed to grazing areas has to be organic. Also, using less cost-and-time-effective ways to raise and milk the cows, purchasing organic feed and allowing more pasture area per cow means more land must be owned and maintained, and less milk produced per unit of land--thus increasing the cost.
Conventional dairy cows often live in smaller spaces without the regulated "room for grazing." I say often, because you can find small, independent farms who raise grass fed cows but don't want the added expense of the certified organic label.
Organic farm practices go beyond your glass of milk
Organic dairy farms begin with taking care of our earth. Using organic herbicides that are not toxic to the planet benefit more than just the cows, it benefits everyone. Workers aren't exposed to substances that cause all sorts of health problems, and our water tables stay cleaner.
As part of the organic agreement, no sewage fertilizer or synthetic fertilizer--which is allowed on normal farms--are allowed on organic farms.
Cows are also not given food made from animal byproducts, which can transmit mad cow disease.
Finally, no genetically altered food is fed to the cows. A number of studies on animals have shown genetically modified food to have harmful effects like sterility, increased allergies, increased likelihood of cancer, smaller and fewer offspring, and death.
Mark Kastel, co-director at The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group and organic industry watchdog based in Cornucopia, Wis., says, "In terms of the environment, organic management practices that are required by law protect the soil and ground and surface waters from pollution."
Hormones used in cows
BGH (bovine growth hormone) or rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) are hormones that increase milk production in cows. These cause insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) in the milk, survive pasteurization and are thereby passed on to humans and absorbed directly into the bloodstream. There is much debate on whether these hormones promote the mutation of human breast cells to cancerous forms. There are also claims that IGF-1 also stimulates the growth of already present cancerous breast and colon cells. In addition, there's a theory that these increased hormones can lead to early puberty.
While the USDA and FDA have approved this hormone and claim there are no harmful effects, it has been banned in Australia, the European Union, Canada, and Japan. In fact, the FDA has a memo regarding the level of antibiotics that are acceptable in milk.
Hormones also affect the cows themselves. The cows get sicker once injected with the hormone, and are prone to mastitis--a painful infection in the udder. So the cows are then given high doses of antibiotics which also get passed along in your milk. Mastitis can cause pus to emit in milk which increases the harmful bacteria count. Perhaps this is eradicated with pasteurization, but drinking pus and/or antibiotics doesn't sound all that appealing to me.
To be fair, all dairy--regardless of whether it's organic or not--has hormones. These added hormones just increase the amount found in milk versus organic, grass-fed milk.
When a non-organic cow gets sick or has an udder infection (which happens more often to cows injected with hormones), she is treated with a dose of antibiotics. While Stephanie Hill, a dairy specialist and assistant professor of animal science at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro, says that it's illegal to give antibiotics to a lactating cow, adding that farmers are responsible for any antibiotics that show up in tanker-truck samples, which would force the dumping of the entire truck's contents, there is ample evidence of antibiotics found in milk --a quick Google search will show that.
One study stated that prior to the approval of BGH, 38% of milk sampled nationally was already contaminated by illegal residues of antibiotics and animal drugs,and this study shows that 21% of milk samples were positive for traces of antibiotics beyond the recommended holding period.
Consuming antibiotics through your milk can make you more immune to antibiotics and more susceptible to antibiotic resistant bacteria and diseases. MRSA--methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus--is an extremely dangerous bacterial infection that's highly resistant to some antibiotics and is becoming more widespread in the United States. Studies are being done on MRSA transmission from cows with mastitis to people. Google a picture of what a MRSA infection looks like...it's not pretty.
Recently, the FDA has begun to take baby steps limiting the amount of antibiotics given to animals, but the fact of the matter is that 80% of antibiotics in this country go not to people, but to animals.
What does "access to pasture" really mean?
This is a gray area in the organic world. Does that mean the cows wander free across the countryside as they like or are the doors let open for 10 minutes to allow them to graze if they like?
The Cornucopia Institute is a nonprofit that promotes economic justice for family-scale farming, and provides a scoring card for dairies if you want to see how they measure up in regards to treatment of the cows.
Large scale dairies like Horizon are more like conventional dairies--lots of cows lined up munching away on organic pellets while being milked. A responsible farmer who rotates his cows on different crops not only is rewarded with milk with more nutrients, but with healthy pastures as well. Studies show that cows that graze on pasture have milk have higher levels of beneficial nutrients. Click here for more information.
There is still a lot of discussion on this and every dairy farm is different on the amount of land per cow they have and how much grazing time the cows get. The best solution if you want to go organic is to try to do your own research on the brand you buy.
One major advantage of organic milk is that (often) it stays fresh significantly longer than regular pasteurized milk. That is because a different process is used to preserve the milk. While regular milk is pasteurized or flash pasteurized, meaning it is exposed to high heat (140-160 degrees) for a short amount of time then rapidly cooled to destroy bacteria, protozoa, molds, and yeast. According to Wikipedia, however, pasteurization is not intended to kill micro-organisms.
Organic milk is usually given an ultra high temperature (UHT) treatment, meaning it is heated to 275 degrees for a couple of seconds. This kills all the bacteria in the milk, allowing it to have a longer shelf life than normal pasteurized milk which doesn't eradicate all bacteria. UHT also has a shorter processing time, which reduces the spoiling of nutrients found in the milk.
UHT milk also doesn't need to be refrigerated (a weird concept to us Americans, I know), so UK dairy farmers want to make 90% of milk UHT treated to cut down on greenhouse gasses (this is still being discussed).
Whether or not you like your milk icy cold or room temperature, UHT treatment done on organic milk does make it last much longer than pasteurized milk. But to be fair to both sides, you can find non-organic UHT treated milk.
On the flip side, however, raw milk advocates argue that any kind of pasteurization kills some of the beneficial bacteria found in milk. If you really want to hear a heated discussion, start a debate about raw milk...I may save that for a later hub.
Are there any health differences?
The FDA and USDA claim there are no significant differences between organic and regular milk in quality, safety and nutrition. You can read more about their report in this article from the National Dairy Council.
However, in all my research what I noticed most were conflicting reports. Reports that antibiotics were illegal to use on lactating cows, yet there were still illegal amounts in a high percentage of milk. Studies suggesting hormones have no effect on humans or cows and studies suggesting it can cause emotional and health damage to cows and may be contributing factors in some major human illnesses. From my own personal experience, however, when I switched to organic dairy the intensity of my hormone-related migraines decreased SIGNIFICANTLY.
A new study has just been published by Newcastle University in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture stating that organic milk is healthier for you. The study showed that cows that were allowed to graze naturally--you know, like they did in the good old days--produced milk which contained significantly higher beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins than regular dairy cows that feed in a line at a trough. It also showed that during summer months, one of the beneficial fats in particular - conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA9 - is found to be 60% higher in organic milk than regular milk. You can read more on this study at this article, or this article.
A Word on Taste
Some commenters have mentioned a different taste in organic and regular milk.
Most traditional dairies use Holstein cows that are fed a mixture of grain, including corn. Corn is not a natural part of a cow's diet, increases the acidity in the stomachs and in turn makes the cow sicker. The "fix" is to pump them with antibiotics. If you've grown up on conventional milk, you may just be more accustomed to this taste.
Organic dairies, especially smaller, local ones, may use different breeds of dairy cows. They may have different levels of fat in the milk, different smells, or even a slightly different color of the milk. If they are fed only by grazing on fresh pasture, the flavor will probably be very different than a cow that eats dried pellets in a stall.
Even location can play a role. A Jersey cow eating fresh grass in Virginia may produce different tasting milk than a Jersey cow eating grass in Washington.
The Choice is Udderly Yours
When I set out to write this article I was drinking regular milk. During the course of my research, and in the years since, I've definitely become convinced as to the benefits of organic milk. Even our butter, yogurt, cheese and ice cream are all organic now.
And a word on certified organic: talk to your local dairy farmers at a farmers' market, or do some research on the internet. Just because a dairy isn't certified organic doesn't mean it doesn't apply environmentally healthy practices. Some dairies are too small to afford all the qualifications that come along with being certified. We used to get our milk from a farm an hour north of us, where we could drive up anytime and see the cows out in the pasture, happily chomping away on fresh grass. That family's dedication to being organic was thorough, though they couldn't afford all the extras that come with certification.
So, if you don't really care about trace antibiotics, trust the FDA and want to save some cash, buy regular. But if you care about the impact dairies make on the environment, your local farmers and ultimately your body, you may want to consider buying organic.
Short video about hormones used in cows
Some HIGHLY recommended books and movies
Some Valuable Articles to Take a Look At
- rBGH, animal and human risks - The Issues
A great resource on rBGH with lots of links
- Studies on Genetically Modified foods
Genetically modified foods…Are they safe? The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) doesn’t think so. The Academy reported that “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food"
- Why Monsanto Doesn\'t Want You to Know About Those Hormones in Your Dairy
Why Monsanto Doesn't Want You to Know About Those Hormones in Your Dairy New York state dairy farmer John Bunting doesn't use an artificial bovine growth hormone on his cows for one key reason. He doesn't want them getting sick.
- Antiobiotics, animals and the FDA - Los Angeles Times
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration restricted the routine use of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins in livestock, it picked an easy target. The agency's move is better than
- F.D.A and Dairy Industry Spar Over Testing of Milk - NYTimes.com
Under industry pressure, the F.D.A. postponed testing milk from farms that sold cows tainted by drug residue. Now the two sides are sparring over the danger posed by antibiotics in the milk supply.
- Five Easy Ways to Go Organic - Well Blog - NYTimes.com
Choosing just a few organic foods can make a big difference.
- Organic milk is healthier, says study
Drinking organic milk has greater health benefits than drinking normal milk, according to a new study.
- TED Case Study: Bovine Growth Hormone (rbST) and DairyTrade
Information on rbST
- Organic milk: Are the benefits worth the cost? - Nutrition Notes - MSNBC.com
Demand for organic milk, which can sell for up to double the cost of other milk, is booming. Deciding whether to spend the extra money is not as clear-cut a decision as some suggest.