By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
A few months ago, I quit my day job. And I began wondering if it was worth it for me to pay twice as much for organic milk. In general, a gallon of milk where I shop is about $2.99 and the organic is right at $6.00.
That’s a big difference.
So, when it comes to milk, what does “organic” mean, exactly? According to the USDA, organic farmers cannot give their cows hormones or antibiotics and need to give them organic feed. They also have to make sure cows have “access to pasture.” Here’s how it translates in terms of some of the common, hot-button arguments made in the battles of organic vs non:
Pesticides: Unlike fruits and vegetables, pesticides are not the issue when it comes to organic milk. The National Dairy Council says that milk is among the agricultural products with the lowest detectable amounts of pesticides. The Organic Center claims that more sensitive testing developed by the USDA shows milk does contain more residues than previously thought, but they are still are far below safety cut offs.
Antibiotics: What about antibiotics? All milk is tested for antibiotics. It’s thrown out if any are found.
Hormones: It’s pretty easy to find conventional milk cartons with the claim “made without rbST” (recumbent growth hormone bovine hormone), if that’s a concern. The FDA claims there isn’t a difference between milk from cows given this hormone and those not given it.
Nutritional benefits: A recent study out of Washington State University highlights organic milk’s biggest perk in terms of nutrition: organic milk was found to contain 25% less omega-6 fatty acids and 62% more omega-3 fatty acids, likely due to the cows being at least partially pasture fed. Some experts believe diets high in omega 6 and low in omega 3 increase the risk of inflammation, but not all health professionals agree. Additionally, milk is not the key source of omega-6 fatty acids in people’s diets as this study points out – it’s the dramatic increase in soybean oil the food supply. It’s also important to note that studies like the one from Washington State were done with whole milk, so if you drink low or fat-free milk, these results may seem less impressive.
There are also considerations around environmental impact that can influence people’s decision to go organic. “I’ve also read, and personally noticed, that organic milk lasts longer,” says Lisa Raum, RD. “I’ve been buying organic milk for years because we’re huge advocates of environmental sustainability and other organic-related attributes.”
And then, of course, there’s the cost. Some health professionals are less than thrilled to pay double price. “I have never bought organic milk for my household and have raised 3 healthy kids, ” says Rosanne Rust, MS, RD. “It’s up to individuals to decide.”
So what did I decide? Well as I’ve written about before, my husband and I drink fat-free milk (mainly in oatmeal) and we will not be buying organic. When my kids were little and drinking whole milk, it was organic milk for sure, and I’d make that choice again. But now that they are older and drink low fat milk, we are going to try conventional for a change. That’s not saying we won’t buy other organic dairy products, but with my unemployed status, I’m not sure I can justify the price of organic milk.
What type of milk do you buy and why?