The dairy case if full of choices. But one thing that’s consistent is the nutritional value, purity and safety of dairy. Milk and dairy products are among the most tested and regulated foods in the country. All dairy farms and processing plants in the U.S. must meet strict standards for content, wholesomeness and product safety. America’s dairy farmers are dedicated to providing delicious, safe, high-quality milk.
So what’s the difference between traditional “regular” and organic milk? Organic milk refers to the production process not the product itself. Organically-produced and traditionally-produced milks are identical in their composition, nutritive characteristics, purity and safety attributes.
First, let’s look at what’s the same about traditional and organic milk:
All Milk is Antibiotic-Free – Every tank load of milk entering a dairy processing plant in the U.S. is strictly tested for animal drug residues and disposed of if it tests positive. (see my May 19, 2010 blog titled The Truth about Antibiotic Use)
All Milk is Pesticide-Free - There are no pesticides in milk. Pesticides are not a health concern in any milk products.
All Milk Contains Hormones – All foods derived from animals contain trace amounts of protein hormones, usually a few parts-per-billion. The level of hormones is the same in whatever milk you drink. All milk contains the same levels of bovine somatotrophin (bST) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Research shows hormones are present in tiny quantities and are digested harmlessly in the human stomach just like any other protein you eat.
All Milk is Pasteurized – Pasteurization is the process of heating raw milk at a high enough temperature for a sufficient length of time to make milk bacteriologically safe and increase its keeping quality. Most organic milk is ultrapasteurized or ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized for a longer shelf life. Milk that is ultrapasteurized or UHT is heated to a higher temperature than pasteurized milk therefore giving it a longer shelf life. Some states allow raw milk to be sold, but all fluid milk sold in Ohio must be pasteurized.
All Milk has similar Fat and Protein content - Milk fat content is adjusted based on the variety; whole milk, 2% reduced-fat milk, 1% lowfat milk or fat-free milk. Therefore, 2% traditional milk and 2% organic milk contain the same fat and protein content.
All Milk is Nutrient-dense - Milk provides a high level of essential nutrients compared to its calories. All milk contains the same levels of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, phosphorus, riboflavin and niacin.
All Dairy Farms are Inspected – Inspectors from the state department of agriculture visit all dairy farms, unannounced, to examine the facility for cleanliness, equipment operations, milk temperature, correct medicine labeling & storage, adequate hot water, and acceptable ventilation & lighting to name a few. Inspectors visit several times annually. The same regulations apply to all types of dairy farms – small or large, organic or traditional, regardless of management techniques.
Farm size - Both production systems (traditional and organic) include farms of all sizes.
The end product is the same, so what’s the difference between traditional and organic? One big difference is price. Organic dairy products are more expensive to purchase in the grocery store.
Organic livestock production prohibits the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals and the use of hormones. Again, no milk contains antibiotics and all milk has the same small level of hormones regardless of management practices. Organic dairies must feed their cows organic feed which is produced without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers or genetically-modified seeds. Organic cows are required to have access to pasture.
Traditional dairy farms are allowed to use new technology approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can utilize chemicals when growing crops. It’s important to know there are rules and guidelines that dictate the quantity and methods of purchasing, storing and applying herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. It doesn’t make economic sense to overuse these chemicals.
Consumers assume that organically grown crops are more environmentally friendly. However, organic production methods are far less efficient than the modern methods used by traditional farmers. Science proves utilizing modern technology and management practices to maximize each cow’s milk production reduces green house gas (GHG) emissions from dairy. Traditional milk production is environmentally responsible because traditional cows produce twice as much milk as organic cows. This efficiency improves environmental sustainability by utilizing less feed, water, land and fuel resources and produces less manure. Organic farming requires more land and more animals for the same output.
The Bottom Line
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance and safety.”
According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “It is important for food and nutrition professionals to know that conventionally, rbST-free, and organic milk are compositionally similar.”
Marketing claims that organic milk is different from, and better than, traditionally produced milk have not been scientifically sustained. In terms of quality, safety and nutrition, there’s no difference. Production and management methods differ from dairy to dairy but the final product on the store shelf is the same. All milk contains the same combination of nutrients that make dairy foods an important part of a healthy diet.
My husband and I grew up drinking traditional milk, feed our family traditionally produced dairy products and operate a traditional dairy. I know we produce a high quality product and we are proud of the way we operate our farm. Moms like me want to provide our children with healthy and nutritious foods. I want other moms to feel confident when they purchase traditional dairy they are getting a safe, high quality and nutritious product that is second to none.