Why I Drink Organic Milk

I was raised in a “milk with dinner” kind of family, and my taste for skim milk has carried with me into adulthood. Milk, after all, is the number one reason I could never go vegan. When I went off to college and started grocery shopping for myself, I got into the habit of purchasing organic milk. At upwards of $6 a gallon (although closer to $5 in Texas), one might question if the expense is worth it. My answer? Yes, indeed.

Image via USDA

According to the USDA website, “The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.” But what does this mean for the milk exactly? Read on to find out…

  • Does organic milk come from cows that are exclusively grass fed? Not necessarily, but we’re moving in the right direction. More recently (2010), cows are now required to obtain 30% of their feed from pasturing, and must be in the pasture for no less than 120 days. This is quite a victory not only for small organic farmers that adhere to the principles of grass fed livestock, but also for consumers. Grass fed cows are shown to produce milk that is higher in vitamins, antioxidants, and even Omega-3’s! This is why organic milk is said to be HEALTHIER.
  • Are hormones in milk a big deal? Unfortunately, there have been reports of female infants growing breasts, which scientists have attributed to the hormones in milk (baby formula). Although these cases were in China and Puerto Rico, the US also allows conventional (not organic) cows to be supplemented with growth hormones and estrogen. Despite a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that concluded that the growth hormones in conventional milk break down and become inactive, and that the estrogen given to cows is in quantities too small to matter, this certainly is not something that I want to take a chance with. Additionally, milk from cows treated with growth hormones (rBGH) have higher levels of IGF-1, which is worrisome because elevated human levels of IGF-1 are thought to pose a risk for cancer.
  • What about antibiotics? Because antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread between people and food, the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates a preference for antibiotic free, organic meat. Why does this recommendation not extend to dairy products? Conventional milk is routinely tested for antibiotic residues, so the finished product should be free of them. Nonetheless, the fact remains that antibiotic resistance CAN spread to humans through what we eat, and is serious enough for the FDA to dub the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals “a serious public health threat”. And if the antibiotics don’t make it into our milk, do you know where they end up? In our waterways. As you could have guessed, organic practices are healthier for the environment as well.

For more information on organics and organic milk:

  • As with most organic products, there are a handful of industrial sized dairy farms that try to cut corners. In order to make organic dairy practices more transparent to consumers, the Cornucopia Institute put together a report card for organic dairy, rating producers on a scale of 0-5. This report card is meant to help consumers make informed decisions about dairy, based on the pasturing practices, feed, and treatment of the animals. My Whole Foods 365 milk scored an impressive 4/5, and was the highest rated private label milk. On the other hand, Horizon Organics scored a pathetic 0/5.  I highly recommend that all shoppers head over to the Cornucopia Institute and check this list out.
  • Are you still unsure how you feel about organics? Check out this debate (“Are Organics Worth the Expense?”) from the New York Times. Not surprisingly, I side with the Marion Nestle/Raj Patel/Tom Philpott arguments. But don’t just take it from me. Check out the debate for yourself.

Image via yelp

The way I see it, fruits and vegetables are going to be good for you no matter what. It is the more “controversial” or “questionable” food items, such as dairy, livestock, and eggs, that you want to be extra careful with. These foods definitely have the potential to nourish your body, just make sure that you shop with integrity.

Understandably, not all Americans are fortunate enough to be able to choose organic milk, and many health professionals will tell you that drinking conventional milk is much better than drinking no milk at all. I’ll be the first to admit that in freezing cold weather, the corner store’s conventional milk is a lot more tempting than making the trek to Whole Foods, which is why you’ll see quite a variety of dairy products in my recipe posts. But for those of you that do have the time and the choice, I urge you to consider organic dairy. My health is worth $6 a gallon. Is yours?

– Kelly

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