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Organic Versus Conventional Milk Fatty Acids

DairyA team led by a Washington State University researcher has found that organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of heart-healthy fatty acids compared to milk from cows on conventionally managed dairy farms. While all types of milk fat can help improve an individual’s fatty acid profile, the team concludes that organic whole milk does so even better.

The study is the first large-scale, U.S.-wide comparison of organic and conventional milk, testing nearly 400 samples of organic and conventional milk over an 18-month period. Conventional milk had an average omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 5.8, more than twice that of organic milk’s ratio of 2.3. The researchers say the far healthier ratio of fatty acids in organic milk is brought about by a greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on organic dairy farms.

The consumption of more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids is a well-known risk factor for a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, excessive inflammation and autoimmune diseases. The higher the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, the greater the associated health risk.

A large body of research has shown that grass and legume forages promote cow health and improve the fatty acid profile in organic dairy products. Still, said WSU researcher Dr. Charles Benbrook, the study’s lead author, “We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study.”

The team also compared the fatty acids in dairy products to those in fish. “We were surprised to find that recommended intakes of full-fat milk products supply far more of the major omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, than recommended servings of fish,” says co-author and WSU research associate Donald R. Davis. Conventional milk had about nine times more ALA than fish while organic milk had 14 times more, he says. Organic milk is also a significant source of two other omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DPA, but not DHA.

This report appears in the February 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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