Photo of a dairy cow eating grass
Grass or pasture-fed organic dairy cows produce healthier milk high in omega-3 fatty acids

Organic milk contains more healthy fats than conventional milk

12 December, 2013

Natural Health News — Organic milk contains a healthier balance of essential fatty acids and higher levels of protein than conventional milk, according to new research.

Researchers at Washington State University tested more than 400 milk samples from across the US and found that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk was healthier (2:3 averaged over a year, compared to 5:8 in conventional milk).

In addition, other health-promoting fatty acids, protein and nutrients (e.g. antioxidants) are also present in organic milk at higher concentrations. The research was published in the journal PLoS One.

Getting the balance right

While both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients, too much of the former and not enough of the later is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), some forms of cancer, and a range of other health problems.

The National Institutes of Health, for example, reports that:

“Most American diets provide more than 10 times as much omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. There is general agreement that individuals should consume more omega-3 and less omega-6 fatty acids to promote good health.”

So what does this mean?

In order to quantify what this might mean to people’s health the researchers looked at three different dietary interventions and their potential to improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the diet of a (fictional) healthy, active 30-year-old woman whose diet provided an 11:3 ratio of omega 6 to omega-3. The goal was to get her diet closer to the more favourable 2:3 ratio.

The interventions where:

  • Increasing dairy product consumption from 3 to 4.5 servings per day.
  • Switching from conventional to organic dairy products.
  • Seeking out low omega-6 alternatives to three foods known to be high in omega-6 (pita chips instead of tortilla chips, canola (rapeseed) instead of soy oil, canola (rapeseed) oil margarine instead of regular margarine).

Perhaps not surprisingly, simply choosing healthier, but similar alternatives for three foods known to have high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, would produce 70% of the needed reduction in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

But switching to high dairy consumption and organic dairy consumption could both achieve 39% of the progress needed to reach the more favourable 2:3 ratio – the latter choice giving  you more nutritional benefits for less consumption.

Good news for organic dairy producers

Dozens of studies, most of them conducted in Europe, have shown higher levels of health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk compared to conventional milk, as well as lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids.

But this is the first major study of this effect in the US. The researchers believe that the difference they have uncovered is highly significant and likely represents the most important nutritional benefit from consumption of organic food in the US.

The findings are also a boon for organic dairy producers. Organic farmers rely much more heavily than conventional farmers on pasture and forage-based feeds that promote omega-3 fatty acids in milk, while conventional dairy farmers have become increasingly reliant on corn and other grain-based feeds that increase omega-6 fatty acids in milk.  Grain-heavy rations also reduce the protein content of milk.

Reviewing the findings, lead researcher Charles Benbrooka research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources advised that if you can’t afford to buy organic, you should drink whole milk over reduced-fat varieties which are missing the healthy fats naturally found in milk. At the same time, however, you should cut back on other foods containing omega-6 fatty acids, like fried food, which can be dangerous for your heart at high levels.