Like a lot of folks out there, I strive to be healthy and with this I try to do what I know should aid to my “good health” efforts and avoid doing what I think is clearly damaging to my health (and by extension physical performance). I like cooking with cow’s butter and I also make my own home-made yogurt – Bulgarian style (I’m Bulgarian by birth).
So, naturally, I started buying certified organic full-fat milk from the local grocer. With “organic” being so controversial nowadays, especially to the ways it is regulated I am somewhat suspicious of organic produce, but even more so of organic animal products – the meaning is so blurred in this category. What exactly does “organic” mean in animal products? It mostly mean that the animals were fed certified organic feed. That’s it!
I also new that there is an option to buy grass-fed milk from the natural store and I’ve read on numerous forums and websites people extoll the virtues of grass-fed dairy and often advise against conventional and even certified organic milk and butter.
I set out to find out for myself where the truth lies in the argument “grass-fed vs. organic milk”. Below is my pros and cons summary of findings for each type of milk.
(A note: Anywhere in the bullets text below where you see “..is” you should probably read, “..is supposed to be”.)
Certified Organic Cow’s Milk – the Facts
- Organic cows (are supposed to…, remember?) eat only certified organic grains (soy and corn, although botanically soy is a bean)
- Organic dairy operations (are supposed to) feed the cows both grains and grass
- Milk from organic cows is (possibly) less contaminated with environmental toxins than grass fed milk (but not all grass fed milk – see below)
- Organic cows are fed soy and corn
- Weaker micro-nutrient profile when compared to grass fed milk
- Large-scale dairy operations, including certified organic, still confine the dairy cows in lots possibly at least seventy percent of the time (link above)
Grass-fed Cow’s Milk – the Facts
- Cows eat grass and silage only – no grains
- Much higher levels of CLA (3 – 5 times higher CLA levels)
- Better Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio
- Higher vitamin A levels (in full-fat grass-fed milk)
- Higher vitamin E levels (in the fat)
- Possibly higher vitamin K2 levels (in the fat)
- Milk from grass-fed cows could be more contaminated with pesticides and herbicides than certified organic milk
- This is somewhat an extension of the above, but it deserves its own line: Grass-fed milk (its fat actually) possibly contains higher levels of dioxin – from the soil and grass the cows feed on – than certified organic milk (see below)
- Grass-fed milk cannot be legally purchased in non-pasteurized (raw) form
Dioxin in cow’s milk
Dioxin and related chemical compounds are environmental chemical pollutants that accumulate win the fat tissue of animals and humans. I am not going to go into detail on this as it is covered elsewhere much better than I would ever be able to cover it, but just know this much:
- High dioxin levels accumulation puts people at seriously increased risk of cancers of all types and at all sites
- Dioxin accumulates in fat tissues and it’s ingested by eating animal fats like beef and cow’s butter and cow’s full-fat milk. In fact these three are the top three sources of dioxin in the human diet
- Dioxins have been linked to developmental, immunologic, and endocrine toxicity (link to a 10-year reassessment report on dioxins by the EPA)
- Dioxin takes about 8 years and up to 13 years for the body to metabolize
Dioxins are airborne and deposit themselves onto soil and grass, also into waterways and thus become a source for ingestion by both range-free animals and fish. The EPA report (link above) states that:
Feeds derived from seeds contain lower concentrations of dioxins, since the seed is not directly exposed to the air. Ruminants therefore are more vulnerable to dioxin exposure than poultry and swine, as their feed source is predominantly roughage based.Dioxins in the Food Chain: Background
This basically means two things:
- Grass-fed cows are at substantially higher risk of ingestion of dioxins (and therefore passing the dioxins onto us through the fat in their milk and butter) than organic cows, since organic cows are fed grains to a substantial degree
- Not all grass-fed milk has higher concentrations of dioxins. The concentrations of dioxins in the soil and grass will to a large degree depend on whether there are large industrial complexes near the area where the cows are allowed to graze. Another big source of dioxins appears to be waste and medical waste incinerator sites.
In other words, milk derived from grass-fed cows will vary substantially in its levels of dioxins. I can only guess that remote small farms produce grass-fed dairy that is very low in any kinds of environmental toxins. On the other hand, even small grass-fed dairy producers – although with no intention at all – put out (unknowingly) grass-fed dairy with much higher dioxin levels than certified organic cows.
So, what should I (You) do now?
To be honest, when I set out to research the topic of grass-fed vs. organic milk I, just like you I believe, hoped to discover that grass-fed milk is cleaner than certified organic milk and as an added bonus it offers higher micro-nutrient levels.
My personal conclusion is this: If I want to put the emphasis on cleanliness from environmental pollutants I should stick with certified organic dairy and sacrifice on some of the micro-nutrients that grass-fed dairy would offer (all while I keep high hopes for the certified organic operations to be diligent in following the rules and regulations).
If I want to take advantage of the better micro-nutrient profile (especially the higher levels of vitamin K2) in grass-fed dairy my best bet is to find a local farmer who offers grass-fed milk, research the location of the farm and its adjacent pastures and decide for myself whether the remoteness (or proximity) of the farm to industrial complexes and manufacturing guarantees a relatively safe choice of grass-fed dairy.
The problem with store-purchased grass-fed milk is that you can never know and you cannot possibly research to see where exactly the milk originates. Large grass-fed dairy operations usually purchase the milk from many smaller farms.
What is your course of action after knowing what I know about grass-fed and certified organic milk?
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