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Is Organic Whole Milk a Silver Bullet for Slowing Heart Disease?

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A recent study has proven that whole organic milk is better for you than conventional milk. Drinking whole organic milk “will certainly lessen the risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” said the study’s lead author, Charles M. Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.” He is talking about the presence of fatty acids in organic milk. The fatty acid in question, omega-3, is also found in fish and flaxseed. And there is omega-6, found in fried foods, which offers benefits to the body as well. All milk contains fatty acids, but it seems that organic milk has 62% more omega-3 fatty acid and 25% less omega-6 than its nonorganic counterpart. It’s the ratio that matters.

This research on organic milk was funded by Organic Valley, the makers of organic dairy products. Other experts, not connected with the study or the farm cooperative, are saying the findings are ‘credible’. Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health called it a “very good piece of work”. (NYT, 12/9/13)

So do we rush out and increase our organic, whole milk consumption? At least one of the researchers is suggesting we raise consumption from three servings a day to four and a half. Again, that is whole milk; nonfat milk has been stripped of fatty acids. So if we increase our consumption of whole milk we are also increasing calories considerably, requiring us to find other places to cut calories.  Those of you who converted to skim milk over the past years (like this writer), who now try to drink whole milk, may find it akin to drinking a glass of cream – it tastes very rich.

The various doctors quoted in this New York Times article talk about the validity of the study, and agree that consumption of omega-3 is important. But they question the idea that our bodies require a certain ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 for proper health. (NYT, 12/9/13)   Should we depend upon milk as our main source of omega-3? In many countries adults drink very little milk.  In Mediterranean countries, known for healthy eating and longer lifespans, milk is not a large part of their diet.

It is reassuring to know that organic, whole milk is good for us. And, while the study received some positive reviews, it was funded by companies with a financial stake in the organic food industry.  What a great marketing tool – we all need to just drink more organic, whole milk. There are other great sources of omega-3, notably fish (Salmon is an excellent source).

While organic, whole milk may be good for most of us, most nutritionists would say that it should be considered and consumed in the context of a varied diet that includes other sources of essential nutrients, including omega-3’s.  There is no one (food) silver bullet when it comes to healthy living.

Organic Products, GMO and Marketing

Many organic brands are less dedicated to a consistent organic product. Organic Valley is unique in that it is a cooperative, owned and run by farmers.  It is well-run and has a solid reputation for delivering quality organic foods. Many organic brands are owned by bigger brands as one part of a massive conglomerate. An organic company may have started out with a commitment to maintaining standards and producing a wholly organic product only to be bought out by a larger company seeking a better profit margin.  The company’s standards and its commitment to producing a certain quality are often watered down after an acquisition. For example, when Silk Soymilk was consumed by Dean Foods, the company reportedly began substituting conventional soybeans for organic ones without notifying consumers. The packaging remained the same with only the word “organic” removed.  (Silk is now under an independent label White Wave).

Consumers are becoming more sophisticated about their foods and they in turn are using their knowledge in the grocery store. Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) have been in the news frequently and some major grocery chains are actively promoting Non-GMO products. We deserve to have accurate labeling on foods and research to back up any health benefit claims. Consumer vigilance and voting with the wallet remain among the best ways to keep food manufacturers honest with regard to their products and food labeling.

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