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What You Need To Know About Organic Milk

Female checking milk's labeling in supermarket.

Deciding whether or not to buy organic milk is something that will have you questioning your values on a variety of issues. Maybe you think organic milk is superior in its nutritional value and that is the most important thing to you. Or maybe it’s because you value the environment, sustainability, and animal welfare that you are considering skipping by the less expensive, conventional milk in favor of organic. Or maybe you’ve tasted organic milk and you think, as one of my friends once said, that it is “heaven on earth” and totally worth splurging on. But no matter where your values lie it isn’t necessarily as simple as deciding what is most important to you and sticking with that, no matter how much you’ll be paying for it.

Let’s start with the taste. Some people do think organic milk tastes better than conventional my friend included. And some organic milk does, but not necessarily because it came from a cow who was treated better or got to graze in an open pasture. According to Craig Baumrucker, a professor of animal nutrition and physiology at Penn State University, the reason most organic milk tastes different is the same reason it lasts longer than most conventional milk: it was processed differently. Instead of being pasteurized at a lower heat for a longer time, organic milk is often heated to a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time. This kills all the bacteria and also caramelizes some of the sugars in the milk making it a bit sweeter than conventional milk.

So there’s that. But why process organic milk differently? Because it often has farther to travel to get to your supermarket than conventional milk. Which may or may not influence your decision if your top priority is the “environment and sustainability” aspect of the organic movement.

But wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. What does “organic” even mean? What are the standards for earning an organic label?

The USDA says this: “Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. . . . Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.”

In milk production, this means that cows who produce organic milk cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics, that their feed cannot be treated with pesticides, and that they are given access to pasture. In comparison with conventional milk, however, this does not necessarily contribute to much of a difference. Cows who produce conventional milk, for example, may be given antibiotics, but their milk will not be put on the market until it has been shown that the antibiotics have run their course and are no longer present in the milk. And “access to pasture” does not necessarily mean that the cows are free to wander open land at will. They may still be limited in their movement and even penned in much of the time.

As for whether following the USDA guidelines produces a nutritionally superior product, well, there haven’t been any studies in the US that have confirmed that organic milk is any better than conventional milk. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently said that because there doesn’t seem tobe much difference in the nutritional content between organic and conventional milk, parents should skip the organic milk spend the saved money on fruits and veggies instead.

So if you’ve been feeling guilty that you aren’t buying organic milk for your little ones, drop the guilt. It may be something to splurge on every now and then if you like the taste, but the benefits may not be worth the price tag.

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