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Milk as Medicine?

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Let’s start with the premise that what we eat matters to how our human body functions. Let’s also recognize that the conversion from food taken in to resulting human health is wildly complex. It seems to be widely accepted by the medical community that we should balance the various types of fats available to us in our diets. Bring your own view on the animal versus plant-based protein theories to the conversation. Organic farmers provide us an opportunity to consume wholesome, healthy fats in our diet. And, there is now evidence showing that how your food is managed on the farm makes a difference for your nutritional health.

An 18-month, national study concluded that dairy cows who consumed a forage-based grass/legume diet produced milk with 25 percent less omega-6 fatty acids and 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, compared to cows who consumed a higher percentage of grains and less forage in their diet (Benbrook et al., PLoS One, 2013). The Certified Organic milk tested in the study had an omega-6: omega-3 ratio of 2.28, while the conventional commercially produced milk averaged a ratio of 5.77. It is generally accepted that diets with lower ratios provide us the right balance of fatty acids instead of making our bodies figure out what to do with the wrong kind of fats. All individual omega-3 fatty acids were higher in the organic milk. With encouraging ratios like these, there is no reason to avoid or limit the servings of grass-forage-based dairy products, especially since they are so tasty and fun to eat.

Certified Organic farms document and have-third party verification that they operate a grass-forage-based system. These systems optimize natural resources and require much less steel, diesel fuel, and pesticides than conventionally produced food products. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are allowed in organic farming systems, period. Using simple electric fence technology, farmers can effectively provide grass and forage meals to livestock from pasture in a manner that benefits the pasture itself by allowing a quick regrowth for another meal after several weeks. The legumes in the pasture pull nitrogen from the air in a symbiotic relationship with a rhizobia bacterium. In a conventional commercial system, grain crops grown with chemically produced nitrogen fertilizers are fed to the livestock. Unless you are purchasing your milk and other dairy products directly from the farmer, the process-verified Certified Organic milk is the only way to know you are getting the good stuff. When you see the organic seal, that product has been carefully managed to maintain integrity throughout the processing and distribution system.

There are other sources of beneficial omega-3 fats, but really, you can only eat so many walnuts, and fish is not so popular for breakfast. Between milk and cheese and yogurt and butter, every meal has a place for dairy. Many local artisan cheeses are made from pasture-based products; just check with the producer to verify the feeding program used. With similar ruminant digestive systems, it stands to reason that beef and lamb would have a similar response to grass-based versus grain-based feeding programs, and the data is being collected ( Look for Certified Organic beef along with dairy, as it also is verified to be grass-based or totally grass-fed. The beauty of the milk study is the consistency of the sample collection and similarity within feeding systems.

All you vegetarians and vegans feeling like you don’t have to worry about any of this? Think again. In a study published in the Journal Food Chemistry, Bohn et al., 2013, determined that certified organic soybeans contain less omega-6 fatty acids, more total protein, more sugars, and less fiber than conventional systems and/or genetically modified soybean farming systems. From the 35 different variables tracked in this study, among them nutrient profiles and pesticide residues, scientists can accurately identify which of the three production systems was used to produce the beans in blind testing of their model. The vast majority of soybeans grown in this country are patented genetically modified plant varieties, as is corn grain for livestock, and increasingly vegetables. In a fruit fly study, the flies lived longer and had more offspring when consuming organic soybeans and/ or organic vegetables than when consuming conventionally farmed equivalent diets (Chhabra et al., PLoS One, 2013).

So it seems conventional thought is telling us to avoid or limit our intake of dairy and other animal products because of the fat content. When those products come from conventionally farmed feeding systems, that assumption is correct.

When meat and dairy products are produced in organic grass-forage-based systems that are closely aligned with the natural ruminant digestive tract, the resulting nutritional quality is right in line with our own dietary needs. Therefore it stands to reason, if you eat organic from the “Farm-U-see,” you can avoid a need for a pharmacy. As far as I’m concerned, that makes milk my medicine.


Mac Stone, BS Agronomy UK, MS Animal Science UK; Former Executive Director, Office of Marketing, KY Dept. of Agriculture; Chair, National Organic Standards Board, Board Member 2011-2015; VP, Lexington Farmers Market; Currently, Director for Sustainability of Farms and Families, KSU; Owner/operator of 375-acre Certified Organic Farm in Scott Co., KY.