I have a shopping list of priority organic foods. Some fruits and vegetables, if the price is right, I’ll normally buy organic; I pay attention to the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 (plant foods that have low pesticide residues) and Dirty Dozen (those that have high pesticide levels). But fruits and veggies ‘just’ have pesticides to deal with. Animal products have GM feed issues, pesticide residues from plants they eat, plus potentially hormone and antibiotic residues. So animal products – milk, cheese, yogurt and meats are right at the top of my organic shopping list.
This blog aims to address the question ‘is organic milk worth it?’ – but firstly – should we be drinking milk at all?
- A 2013 study concluded that ‘humans have no nutritional need for animal milk’. After all, humans only started to drink animal milk after the domestication of animals, which is long after our genes were pre-programmed to cope without milk. So do we need to be drinking milk at all?
- Up to 70% of the global population is lactose intolerant: we produce the lactase enzyme enabling us to digest milk (the intention being breast milk) until approximately the age of four – after which lactase reduces so we can’t digest milk as well. There are genetic variations with the lactase enzyme – so working with a Registered Nutritional Therapist on nutrigenomic testing can be a great idea! But even if you have the enzyme, gut issues can render it ineffective; yet again gut health is imperative – even if your aim is to be able to digest a little milk each day in a coffee! (lactase supplements are an option!)
- Milk contains calcium – we agree. Yet bone health isn’t all about calcium – it’s about how well we absorb calcium (non-dairy consuming countries tend to have lower rates of bone fracture as they age – and plant sources of calcium such as nuts and dark leafy greens are more easily absorbed than dairy sources). It’s also about our intake of the other nutrients (including Vitamin D, K and boron) and how healthy our digestive system is so that we’re actually capable of absorbing it (and producing the important Vitamin K to help support bone health)
- Many people are allergic to dairy products – up to one in fifty infants can be allergic to the protein casein found in milk. It’s worth investigating if you experience any immediate reactions after eating dairy products. Food sensitivity testing is also an option in our clinic – highlighting whether dairy is a (hopefully temporary) issue that may be contributing to symptoms.
But what about those of us who don’t react to milk, and enjoy a daily cappuccino? Some research continues to link dairy intake with health benefits. Until there is a definitive resolution on the subject, my suggestion, if you tolerate milk, is to switch to organic, pasture-fed milk.
This is why.
A leading microbiologist, Martin Blaser, has concerns about low-dose antibiotic residues, such as tetracycline, in milk. Globally, different countries routinely test for certain antibiotic residues and have maximum allowable levels. The EU has stringent guidelines – other countries less so. He suggests chronic, low-grade antibiotic exposure may be contributing globally to diseases including Type 2 Diabetes, allergies such as asthma and eczema but also to our obesity epidemic.
In farming circles, the link between antibiotics and weight gain is well recognised. Until 2006 in the EU, farmers were allowed to use antibiotics specifically as growth promoters in farm animals (i.e. to make them fatter quicker). Now, antibiotics are restricted to medicinal use (although often still routinely administered in non-organic farms on ‘medicinal’ grounds). Organic farmers however are unable to routinely use antibiotics as preventatives and must remove the animal from the food chain for longer than non-organic cattle.
So could there really be a link between obesity and antibiotics? Latest figures show that nearly 30% of our two to fifteen year olds are obese or overweight. We know that obesity has many causes, including our high calorie, western diet of junk food, sugar, soft drinks, low fruit and vegetable intake and too little exercise.
But another cause may be disrupted gut flora – the type and amount of beneficial bugs in our guts. Many factors can alter gut flora and antibiotic use is a big contributor. Antibiotics can be lifesaving, but they’ll wipe out both good and bad bugs in the gut. So could very low levels of antibiotics in non-organic meat and dairy be altering our gut flora? In the west, many of us frequently consume milk, cheese, processed yogurt and meat each day, and eat low levels of prebiotic and probiotic foods which encourage a healthy gut flora.
And as antibiotic exposure builds up, as with farm animals, is it not plausible that we also ‘fatten’ up? In short, the antibiotics we are unwittingly consuming are contributing to the current obesity epidemic?
Even without the antibiotic residue concern, organic milk is a healthier option.
- It contains higher levels of anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fats (over 60% more) that are important for cardiovascular health, mood and brain function. The healthy fat CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) is also present in higher amounts.
- Organic cows feed primarily on pasture, leading to a higher level of antioxidants including Vitamin E and beta-carotene.
A 2007 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition also found an association between consumption of organic versus conventional dairy products in children up to two years old. Those on organic dairy had a third lower risk of eczema.
Supporters of organic ‘raw’ (unpasteurised) milk propose even more benefits, including fewer allergies. Raw milk potentially contains more pathogenic (bad) bacteria so is not on general sale in the UK – although it is possible to buy direct from certain farms. Raw milk supporters claim it is the high heat pasteurisation of milk (which destroys beneficial enzymes and bacteria) that contributes to health issues with milk.
My final reason to buy organic milk is that it really is relatively budget-friendly. Unlike much organic produce, the price differential between organic and non-organic versions is minimal; own brand supermarket semi-skimmed milk per litre currently costs around 89p. Organic is anywhere from £1.00-£1.14.
Personally I find that an easy differential to justify.
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