I could just see the headlines. “Organic Milk: Why Bother?”
So I decided to investigate the study. Turns out, it has little to do with nutrition, and its findings are unclear. Even its title is confusing: “Survey of the fatty acid composition of retail milk differing in label claims based on production management practices.” (Journal of Dairy Science 93: 1918-1925).
Huh? The study in a nutshell: The researchers tested 292 random samples of three different kinds of milk: conventionally produced milk, milk labeled “rbST-free,” and milk labeled “organic.” They measured for levels of fatty acids, and found that the FA levels in all three kinds of milk were virtually the same.
How you get from that finding to the conclusion that “Organic milk has no nutritional advantage” is totally beyond me.
What’s rbST and do we want this stuff in our milk?
In conventional dairy farms, cows can be treated with something called recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST for short. It’s a genetically engineered version of a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates milk production. It’s injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk, and doing so increases the cows’ risk for the painful inflammation called mastitis, among other health problems. The treatment for mastitis is antibiotics, including penicillin (10% of us, including me, are allergic to penicillin). Recently, a team of distinguished doctors concluded that treating mastitis with antibiotics increases antibiotic resistance that can be transferred to humanswhich, they said, is “an extremely dangerous, and growing, problem.” Antibiotic resistance is the reason dangerous, even lethal, bacterial infections like MRSA are so scarythe bacteria don’t respond to traditional antibiotic treatments.
And there’s another potential health risk from having rbST in our milk supply. Some researchers believe it increases human levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which is linked in some studies to increased rates of certain cancers, including cancers of the colon, breast, and prostate.
At this point, I should probably mention that Monsanto developed rbST, and helped fund the Journal of Dairy Science nutrition study. And I should also point out that Canada, the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand ban its use.
Organic dairy farming means fewer environmental toxins
Organic dairy production comes with hefty environmental benefits, says Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a nonprofit organic agriculture research organization. Benbrook has studied organic dairy farming, and says that organic dairy production keeps 40 million pounds of fertilizer and 758,000 pounds of pesticides from fields and waterways. What’s more, organic dairy cattle are given 1.7 million fewer drug treatments. Conventionally managed dairy cows not only get rbST and antibiotics, but they also get reproductive hormones during lactation. We don’t yet know what the effect of these may be on humans, but I don’t need a PhD to know I don’t want the stuff in my milk, or in the milk that our kids drink.
Just over a week or so ago, the journal Pediatrics published a study by researchers from Harvard and the University of Montreal. They examined 119 children who’d been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and discovered that the kids who had high urinary markers for pesticide residue were twice as likely to have ADHD than children whose pesticide levels were undetectable. If drinking organic milk helps limit a kid’s exposure to pesticides, choosing it over non-organic milk seems pretty wise to me.
It’s never easy to connect the dots between cause and effect when it comes to environmental health hazards. No one can yet say that drinking milk containing rbST leads to cancer, or identify any negative health effect of drinking non-organic milk. Despite that, I’d like to err on the safe side and limit my family’s exposure to toxic pesticides and other unwanted chemicals as best I can.
It’s a no-brainer: Only organic milk and dairy for me.
To be sure you’re getting dairy products that are truly organic, look for the USDA-certified organic label.