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Organic milk is healthier than conventional milk, right?

Conventional milk typically contains residue from antibiotics, hormones, herbicides, pesticides, and GMOs. In both humans and animals, the use of these substances has been associated with health issues. According to Organic Consumer’s Association, the use of genetically-modified recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) developed by Monsanto has greatly decreased in commercial milk.  Although this is a step in the right direction, there are mounting concerns as to how the use of antibiotics in farming will affect human health long-term. One of the biggest concerns about antibiotic use is that it contributes to the rise in antibiotic resistance. Because of this, many consumers have begun to understand the risks and have switched to organic milk.

However, just like conventional milk, organic milk can still come from feedlots and undesirable environments! 

What’s so bad about feedlots? Don’t a lot of cows live on them and isn’t this where our milk comes from? If I am buying organic milk that doesn’t have residue from antibiotics, hormones, herbicides, and GMOs, I should be safe, correct?

There are some very important reasons to avoid consuming organic milk and other dairy foods that come from feedlot environments which go beyond antibiotics, hormones, herbicides, and GMOs.

Here’s why organic milk may not be an optimal choice for you and your family:

1.  Organic milk can still originate from cows consuming an inflammatory diet

Producers of organic milk are not permitted to use hormones or antibiotics. Yet, many large organic producers – and some smaller ones – still give cattle feed that can cause inflammatory conditions that start in the digestive tract.

Many organic facilities that produce milk feed their cows soy, corn, and grain, and sometimes other types of “miscellaneous” feed.  Cattle are ruminants which means they are meant to eat grass, fibrous plants, and shrubs. Cattle that consume soy, corn, and grain can easily develop inflammation, which leads to an acidic environment in the cow’s digestive tract and body, setting the stage up for disease. This is one reason why many farmers use antibiotics. Read an excerpt from Nourished Magazine on why grain fed meat is not an optimal nor nutritious food for the cow’s health.

When on pasture, grassfed cattle naturally stay healthier and under low-stress when eating the diet intended by nature. These animals typically don’t need to be treated with drugs.

In addition, corn and soy, even when “organic” are likely to be contaminated with GMO soy and corn since most crops grown in the U.S are now GMO.  Read more about why co-existence is not possible, from the Institute for Responsible Technology.

2. Important nutrients are lost in feedlot environments.

Confinement conditions and the type of feed cattle consume in these environments have a profound effect on the nutritional profile of animal foods produced. According to Eat Wild, Omega 3s and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, an important antioxidant), vanish in the feedlot.  Animal foods from feedlot environments are not nutritionally balanced as their grassfed counterparts.

3.  Pasteurization

The FDA requires all commercial milk to be pasteurized (heated to specified temperatures before it is sold for consumption). According to their site:

“Pasteurization is a process that kills harmful bacteria by heating milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time. First developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864, pasteurization kills harmful organisms responsible for such diseases as listeriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis.

Research shows no meaningful difference in the nutritional values of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. Pasteurized milk contains low levels of the type of nonpathogenic bacteria that can cause food spoilage, so storing your pasteurized milk in the refrigerator is still important.”

What are the REAL reasons for pasteurization?

Any discussion of pasteurization is incomplete unless we understand why the process was originally developed. In Real Food: What to Eat and Why, author Nina Planck explains the story of urban dairies with sick cows that led to the eventual practice of widespread pasteurization.

Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization in the 1860s. It was a form of heat sterilization intended to improve storage quality of beer and wine. Industrial farming began in the late 1800s and early 1900s when population growth demanded higher food and milk production in urban areas in the Eastern U.S.  Authorities proposed pasteurization when outbreaks of tuberculosis and other infectious disease started to spread due to poor quality milk.

Indeed, quality was greatly diminished compared to milk from small family farms and cows grazing on pasture. Cattle were housed in small, confined quarters and consumed cheap, leftover slop material from nearby whiskey distilleries. Although urban dairies realized a cost savings to feeding dairy cattle this way, their health suffered. Mortality rate for cows was high, and they experienced open sores, teeth that fell out, and had putrid breath. Not surprisingly, facilities and employees were filthy and unkempt. Illnesses such as tuberculosis,  infant diarrhea, scarlet, tyhphoid and undulent fever (brucellosis) became rampant.

Dr. Ron Schmid, naturopathic physician, says that pasteurization was never intended to to be used on all milk everyone consumed: “No one was claiming that all milk should be pasteurized, as even the most zealous proponents of pasteurization recognized that carefully produced raw milk from healthy animals was safe.”

Pasteurization actually does not kill all pathogenic bacteria. Some survive the heating process.

Ohio State University Extension Service reported that Listeria, E. coli, and salmonella have all been found to withstand exposure to heat – at temperatures as high as 145 to 150 Fahrenheit. That’s the temperature at which most low-heat or gentle pasteurization occurs.

Cornell University recently released a report from a study that looked at predominant strains of spore-forming bacteria. These strains, primarily Paenibacillus bacteria, cause spoilage in milk and other foods.  They are found frequently in nature and are responsible for curdling effects and also off-flavors in various foods, including dairy.

Researchers discovered certain bacterial strains are able to withstand these heat temperatures, and the results is often milk curdling during storage. “In fact, the bacteria may be uniquely adapted to overcome the twin tactics of dairy protection: pasteurization followed by refrigeration.”  According to co-author and research support specialist Nicole Martin, “the spores are not only resistant to heat, the small jolt of heat during pasteurization may actually stimulate them to germinate. Some can reproduce in refrigerated dairy products at temperatures that would stymy other types of bacteria.”

UHT pasteurization

Some companies such as Organic Valley, Horizon, and others have taken pasteurization to a new level by heating the milk to a higher temperature. UHT or ultra high temperature processing heats at or above 280 degrees to kill pathogens. UHT milk has been reported to have a shelf life of up to 10 months (before opening)! Yuck.

Raw milk from healthy cows on pasture contains fragile enzymes, proteins, and beneficial bacteria that our bodies need to properly digest and absorb nutrients. Raw milk is a rich source of carbohydrates, protein, fats, minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2, as well as Omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

When these bacteria, enzymes and other important elements are altered or destroyed through pasteurization, the body perceives this once whole food as a harmful invader and produces an immune response for protection. Proteins are altered, and in particular, casein proteins found in milk cannot be digested without those necessary raw enzymes.  Even though organic milk may come from cows eating organic feed without antibiotics or hormones, UHT processing greatly reduces nutritional and enzymatic benefits that the milk would have had.

From the Weston A. Price Foundation, UHT damages milk in this way:

“According to Lee Dexter, microbiologist and owner of White Egret Farm goat dairy in Austin, Texas, ultra-pasteurization is an extremely harmful process to inflict on the fragile components of milk. Dexter explains that milk proteins are complex, three-dimensional molecules, like tinker toys. They are broken down and digested when special enzymes fit into the parts that stick out. Rapid heat treatments like pasteurization, and especially ultra-pasteurization, actually flatten the molecules so the enzymes cannot do their work. If such proteins pass into the bloodstream (a frequent occurrence in those suffering from “leaky gut,” a condition that can be brought on by drinking processed commercial milk), the body perceives them as foreign proteins and mounts an immune response. That means a chronically overstressed immune system and much less energy available for growth and repair.”

So although any milk has the potential to contain pathogens, pasteurized milk has an increased risk of being tainted since this milk likely comes from industrial settings where cows exist in confinement and consume unnatural feed that makes them sick. Any beneficial bacteria that might come from this milk would then be destroyed when pasteurized, and beneficial bacteria protects milk from becoming a harmful substance to consume. Since beneficial bacteria contributes to the nutritional value of milk, what remains in pasteurized milk is simply dead bacteria and is not of value for your body nor your and immune system.

3.  Effects on the soil and environmental health

Any discussion of nutrition in milk or any food is also incomplete without also including the health of the soil. In addition to dairy or meat being healthier when it comes from grassfed sources, raising grassfed or holistically managed livestock promotes improved plant and soil health. Soil health is vitally important to the health of everything else in our ecosystems, as it is home to a diverse community of bacterial organisms.

Geomorphologist (from University of Washington) David Montgomery’s book Dirt explains how damaging modern agricultural practices are to the topsoil. In the U.S., cropland in the U.S. becomes eroded 10 times quicker than the rate for it to be replaced by natural means. Some of the biggest cash crops in the world today including wheat, corn, and soy are incredibly depleting of the soil. These shallow-rooted grasses bring about the disintegration of essential trace minerals such as iodine, calcium, and magnesium.  

Perennial grasses and pastures allow important nutrients to go back into the soil in roughly 10 years, (which return year after year) and extend down beyond 10 feet below the surface to replenish nutrients back into the growing system. This allows those nutrients to be available for plants and everything else higher on the food chain.

From Smarter Living, Wendy Gordon’s Top 10 Reasons to Eat Grass-fed Meat:

“In contrast, the deep roots of perennials, often extending more than 10 feet below the surface, act like elevators, lifting nutrients back into the system and making them available to plants and everything else up the food chain. Pure prairie builds up organic matter: the richest of virgin prairie soil in the Midwest once ran to 10 feet deep and was about 10 percent organic. What’s left of the soils where corn and soy now grow typically contains less than half that amount of organic matter. Perennial pastures can restore the richness of the soil in a decade or so.”

4.  Access to outdoors

Many larger organic facilities don’t allow dairy cattle adequate access to the outdoors, even if that is implied on the label. You might see a picture of a farm with pastures and a barn or even see terms such as “humanely raised” or “pasture-raised”. The minimum USDA standards for organic only require 120 days annually on pasture. That means the rest of the time, animals may be in confinement and fed grain and other substances such as corn or soy that don’t contribute to the health of the animals consuming them.  As it is more costly to pasture cattle, supplemental feed such as grain, soy, and corn is used for economic reasons.

The resulting effect on the healthfulness of the food is less nutritional value when cattle consume something other than their primary intended diet: grass. As discussed above, this greatly diminishes the nutrient-quality of the milk produced. When cattle are in feedlot environments and consuming anything besides their natural diet (grass or hay), Omega 3s, fat soluble vitamins, and CLA diminishes greatly (see #1).

5.  Cost of the milk

Depending on where you buy milk, you will pay different prices. Although some raw milk producers charge upwards towards $10 a gallon for their milk, price per gallon varies widely from region to region. There are some commercial organic pasteurized milks which cost about the same as buying local raw milk from a trusted farmer who uses sustainable practices and raises cattle on pasture.

For instance, some organic milks I’ve seen in the store are sold by the half gallon and cost in the range between $2.99 to $3.99.  The whole gallon containers run anywhere from $4.99 up to $7.99. A gallon of local, grass-fed, raw milk when purchased from one of the farmers in our local area can run between $5 and $12/gallon. 

On the low end of this range, would you really want to pay the same amount for an inferior product? If you find prices are higher, do you think a healthier product and its resultant positive effects on your health is worth the higher price tag versus something that isn’t health-promoting to consume?

6. Supporting a commodity-based corporation versus a local farmer

When you buy commercial organic milk, you are almost always supporting a large commercial enterprise. Buying milk locally supports small farming and put those dollars back into your local community. I’d rather support my local sustainable farmers using mindful and healthful farming practices than a big corporation using practices with which I’m not in agreement.

You have a choice! 

1) You can buy milk from commercial, industrial sources that takes animals and turns their meat and milk into a commodity-based product with little to no attention to their health or land stewardship, and cook the nutrients out of foods that were put here to nourish us. 


2) You can find a local farmer producing raw milk from healthy cows on pasture, and take advantage of the superior health benefits found in this perfect food. 

With a little research and education, the choice is yours!