Photo: sarah sosiak, Flickr
It's long been exasperating to the organic food industry -- the oft-stated belief that organic food is most notable for what it doesn't give you – all those yummy pesticides and chemicals. Nutritionally, common wisdom goes, organic food is no better for you than the conventional stuff.
A study by researchers at Newcastle University,in England, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, has poked a hole in that thinking, showing that organic milk does have some nutritional advantages over conventional -- less saturated fat and more "good" fatty acids -- specifically omega-3s.
Testing 10 organic and 12 conventional milks sold in British grocery stores (not raw at the farm), seasonally over two years, lead researcher Gillian Butler found the organic milk more consistently showed healthier fat levels, which she believes is a result of the cows' greater reliance on grazing and their ingestion of larger amounts of clover -- typically planted in organic operations for the nitrogen that conventional fertilizers would otherwise provide.
"Switching to organic milk and dairy products provides a natural way to increase our intake of nutritionally desirable fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants without increasing our intake of less desirable fatty acids," Butler told the British newspaper, The Independent -- not a claim normally heard from a researcher, and not included in the study results. "By choosing organic milk you can cut saturated fats by 30 to 50 percent."
None of this shocked the folks at the New Hampshire-based organic milk and yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm. They've been seeing these same results in their own studies for a while, says Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield's vice president for natural resources.
Her reaction to the British study results: "Oh yeah, that's what we found too."
Since 2008, Stonyfield has been involved in something they call the Greener Cow Project. Its goal was to reduce the greenhouse gas methane produced by cow burps (no kidding) by altering what the cows ate -- more grass, less grain -- though for cows producing organic milk, U.S. regulation requires they be fed grass at least 120 days a year.
But the French scientists working with Stonyfield and making the various nutrient measurements on the milk told Hirshberg, "'Wait 'til you see about the health stuff,'" she recalled.
"When we started getting the numbers back and seeing the difference between organic and nonorganic, I was really shocked," said Hirshberg, who says she's pretty conservative when it comes to making nutritional claims about organic food.
"I've said to all my friends since then, 'If you ever complain again about paying too much for organic milk -- there really is a difference.'"
And she believes the British study results are transferrable to the American organic milk industry, even with the differences in geography, not just between the two nations, but also around the U.S. itself.
"I believe healthy soil, creates healthy plants, which gives us healthy animals," she said. "We all intuitively know, when cows eat well, we do, too."
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