Grass Fed or Organic Milk: What’s Better?

By  Ann Dunaway Teh & Lesley Baradel

Grass-fed, Organic, and Conventional Milk

Novarah Ott and Lesley Baradel

MilkJugandCow

Grass-fed! Organic! Organic grass-fed! Every time I [Lesley] hit the store, there seems to be a new type of milk on the market. I am clear on the differences between organic and conventional milk, but honestly, I did not know why I might choose grass-fed milk over organic milk. One day while grocery shopping, I happened to run into one of the distributors for the grass-fed milk and he actually told me that at Wholefoods, grass-fed milk was their top selling milk. At $1.00 more per gallon than organic milk, I was amazed. Should I be buying grass-fed milk? The label makes me feel that it is a healthier option but is that true? Is one better than the other and worth paying a higher price? Does grass-fed milk really have better nutritional qualities than organic or conventional milk? Does grass-fed taste better than organic milk? There are so many claims, opinions and misinformation out there, but what does the research show?

Let’s look at some of the basic differences:
Conventional milk cows can be fed grass, forage, hay, grain feed, corn silage, and/or even food by-products, such as brewer’s grains, candy waste, or bakery waste. Conventional dairy farmers do not have to conform to the requirements of grass-fed or organic farming practices. Conventional cows may be given growth hormones and antibiotics.

Grass-fed milk cows are only fed grass and forage. They are not given grain, grain products or corn silage. Just because cows are grass-fed does not mean they are following organic farming practices, however. The pastures on which the cows graze may be sprayed with pesticides or herbicides or synthetically fertilized. Also grass-fed cows can be given growth hormones and antibiotics.

Organic milk cows are only fed organically grown grass, forage, hay or feed. They have larger living quarters and access to pasture. They are not given growth hormones or antibiotics and farmers must adhere to all organic farming practices outlined by the USDA. Organic milk can also be labeled grass-fed if it adheres to the standards of both practices.

Is there a difference in type of fats in the milk produced by grass-fed and organic cows as compared to conventional cows?
When compared to conventional milk, there may be a difference in the fat content of both grass-fed and organic cow milk. It all has to do with the food that they consume. Conventional cows are generally fed grain feed, such as corn. This produces milk with a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Grass-fed and organic cows eat much more grass, increasing the omega-3 content and making their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio lower. A lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is associated with anti-inflammatory properties, while a higher ratio is associated with inflammatory properties. Grass-fed and organic milk may also have higher levels of fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants.

Are the differences in grass-fed or organic milk worth the higher price?
That depends. If you are consuming fat-free milk or dairy products you are not getting any of the fat content of the milk. All milk that is not whole milk is required by law to fortify with vitamin A. All milk, including whole milk, is required by law to fortify with vitamin D. Therefore, non-fat and low-fat conventional milk and grass-fed/organic milk are nutritionally similar. Whole milk may have some nutritional differences in terms of the type of fat. Whole milk, however, still contains a higher amount of saturated fat and a higher caloric content when compared to low-fat or non-fat dairy, regardless of it being conventional, grass-fed or organic dairy.

Is there a difference in taste?
In our non-scientific blind taste test of grass-fed and organic milk, the three participants (Lesley, Ann and our intern) all happened to choose the grass-fed milk as tasting slightly better. The difference in taste was minimal however and everyone liked both.

What’s the take home message?

  • Organic means the cows are raised organically being fed grass, forage, or feed. They are not given antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Grass-fed are only fed grass or forage, but don’t have to adhere to organic farming practices.
  • Organic and grass-fed means the cows are raised organically and only fed grass or forage.
  • Cows fed grass have milk with a different nutritional profile from cows who are fed feed, though this difference is only relevant if you are drinking whole milk.
    • Grass-fed whole milk may have a healthier fat ratio, making it more anti-inflammatory when compared to conventional milk. It may also have more fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants.
    • Whole milk also contains more saturated fat and calories per serving than lower fat or non-fat milk, regardless of whether it is conventional, organic or grass-fed.

The bottom line is that finding the right dairy product really depends on personal preference and how these products fit into your diet and budget as a whole.

So what do Ann and Lesley feed their families at home?
As we said above, it is about personal preference and budget:

  • Ann buys low-fat conventional milk
  • Lesley buys non-fat organic milk
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