Science informs the decisions farmers make in producing food and affects the food purchasing decisions made by consumers. Sometimes, long-held scientific recommendations change, and such a paradigm shift is afoot for fluid milk.
Last week, a study led by Washington State University researcher Dr. Charles Benbrook drew some significant attention, particularly in health and dairy circles. Dr. Benbrook’s study found that whole-fat organic milk is a better source of certain important nutrients than conventional whole milk. This was the “first large-scale, national milk-fat composition survey in the U.S. comparing milk from organic and conventional farms,” as the study states.
Dr. Benbrook’s research focused on the amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in milk. Both are essential, but a healthy diet contains a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. For example, Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation while some omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. For general health, the balanced ratio should be in the range of four-to-one, down to two-to-one, omega-6 to omega-3, and some health educators advocate even lower ratios.
Conventional whole milk tends to have a relatively high amount of omega-6 relative to omega-3, and the study found that milk from organic production brings the ratio down from about six-to-one to nearly two-to-one. That’s a significant and eye-catching improvement.
The study found that organic production standards, in particular those followed by farmer-owners of Organic Valley (who helped to fund the program at Washington State that facilitated Dr. Benbrook’s research), rely upon pasture and forage-based feeds that improve the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 in whole milk. Although the same concepts could be applied to conventional dairy production, these feeding methods and rations are staples for family farmer organic production.
Also highlighted in the study is that additional consideration should be given to consumption of whole milk, either organic or conventional. Common recommendations have been to limit the amount of whole milk in the diet because of its connection to LDL or “bad” cholesterol and instead to encourage reduced-fat milk or other dairy products. These widely-held beliefs did not fully weigh the benefits of balanced omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid consumption. Dr. Benbrook’s study suggests that a long-term shift in fat intakes, from dairy fat to vegetable oils, has had negative health impacts. Improving the nutritional quality of milk – either maintaining whole fat milk or through forage-based feed for dairy animals – will bring about healthier diets.
New science shows us that whole milk is a better choice than its reduced-fat counterparts. Scientific research can result in changes to common knowledge, for both farmers and consumers, and farmers and consumers ought to be open to these new recommendations. We look forward to more research like this so that our knowledge of health and diet can be continually rethought, updated, and improved.