There are many factors that influence milk quality and nutritional value and most can be traced back to specific traditional production methods. This article looks at three factors:
- organic grass-fed milk,
- full-fat milk
- and raw, unpasteurised milk.
Science shows that butterfat from grass-fed cows is a major source of healthy nutrients. This fat is highly complex. It contains 400 different fatty acids and a good amount of fat-soluble vitamins (source). A United Kingdom study notes that demand for organic dairy products has increased rapidly over the past 20 years, partially driven by consumer perspective that they contain higher concentrations of nutritionally desirable compounds, therefore making them healthier (source). CLA and Omega-3 are two of the most important components.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
A good number of studies have been done on conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that show it is beneficial to consume them regularly in its natural form. CLA can help you loose weight. Several studies show that people who get a lot of CLA from foods are at a lower risk of various diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cancer (study1) (study2). Studies also show a lower risk of heart disease (source) in countries where cows eat grass, and people consequently have a lot of CLA in their bodies. CLA content is 300-500% higher in beef and dairy from grass-fed cows, compared to grain-fed cows (source). Earlier studies show that cows on a diet of fresh grass produce five times as much CLA than cows fed processed grains.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Another well known healthy fat from grass-fed milk is omega-3 fatty acids. According to research, omega-3 fatty acids are cardioprotective – meaning they help improve heart health (source).
Consumers who seek good health through nutrient-dense foods, as advocated by The Weston A. Price Foundation, know to seek out grass-fed or pastured animal products. Many people now understand that foods like pasture-raised eggs, pasture-raised beef and wild caught salmon contain a healthier and natural Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. The same applies to milk. The quality of the food is dependent on the quality of the feed the animals were raised on. Grass is a cow's natural diet.
Professor Carlo Leifert from NewCastle University, United Kingdom, say that studies show people choose organic milk and meat for three main reasons:
- improved animal welfare,
- the positive impacts of organic farming on the environment
- and the perceived health benefits.
Organic cow's milk has a "more desirable fatty acid composition" than conventional milk (source). Professor Leifert's co-author and colleague Professor Chris Seal said: "Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function." Both organic meat and milk provide 50% more of the omega-3 fatty acids that are important in human nutrition (source).
What went wrong? Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio and disease
Researchers note that over the last century intakes of omega-6 fatty acids in Western diets have dramatically increased, while omega-3 intake have fallen. This imbalance can set the stage for a number of health problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, diabetes, and Alzheimers’ disease. Consumers can reverse this trend by eating more Omega-3 rich foods and cutting down the Omega-6 rich foods. This way people can reduce or eliminate probable risk factors for a wide range of developmental and chronic health problems (source). A study from earlier this year in Germany identified the much higher omega-3 fatty acid content in raw milk played a key role in enabling the body to create chemicals that reduce harmful inflammation (source).
Dr. Ton Baars: What is the healthiest milk?
The video below is a must see. Dutch research scientist Dr. Ton Baars is highly credentialed and explains the difference between milk from a cow eating green, growing grass and milk from a cow fed maize/corn. (Remember, corn is an omega-6 dominant food.) According to Dr. Baars you can ruin the fat quality of your milk within a week by taking cows that were on pasture and changing their diet to include corn. There is an impact on the quality of the milk fat. He notes that many dairy farmers say grass has too much protein in it, which is why they give the cows both a pasture-based diet and corn, but in doing so the fat quality is ruined.
Some Australian dairy farmers have expressed their surprise on the Facebook page at raw milk dairies in other countries who pride themselves on being a 100% grass-fed. Some consumers in other countries are asking their farmers for it and it is feasible due to demand. Milk production is less, but it is still worth it due to consumer preference and a willingness to pay for better quality. It has become a consumer driven movement.
Dr. Baars say pasture-based milk is the best way to get a high nutrient-dense food. He says these are the best ways to create the healthiest milk profile:
- when the cows get access to grass day and night,
- when the grass is growing strong and rapid (not when it is high and somewhat dead)
- and a biodiversity of herbs and grass species is helpful.
According to Dr. Baars science is now showing this milk has healthier and superior butterfat.
He says the CLA (and Omega-3's) disappear when you put animals in confinement dairies.
Dr. Baars was also one of the lead authors in the Pasture study that found that raw milk was linked to about a 30% drop in respiratory infections and fever and helps babies and young children prevent common ailments. In its pure, raw, unobstructed form it is superior when it comes to immune-boosting nutrition. "It means there is additional new evidence that raw milk is a protective agent in infectious diseases in young children.” Many Europeans accept raw milk as a safe beneficial food. Commercial milk was also discovered to raise the prevalence of fevers in comparison to raw milk.
The value of Australian milk
There is a lot of awareness in the UK about the superiority of organic milk from animals allowed to forage and graze for their own food. Can the same be said for the general Australian public? Many Australians care about our dairy farmers who are experiencing hardship but do they realise the value of what we have? Many Australian dairy farmers are still in the unique position to provide citizens with pasture-raised milk. We need to nurture and protect this valuable asset.
We are already seeing Australian farmers who feed their cows brewer's grain, citrus pulp and seaweed in an effort to produce more milk. It is somewhat reminiscent of the days when cows were fed slop and became diseased:
Cows are ruminants and they are meant to eat grass. It is what their stomachs digest with ease, what keeps them strong and robust and allows them to produce disease-free milk that is high in vital nutrients. Healthier cows means no need for anti-biotics and farmers who produce raw milk for human consumption don't use hormones to artificially boost milk production because the raw dairy is financially viable. The low farm-gate prices force the Australian dairy industry to take all sorts of unhealthy shortcuts that disadvantages, see the article: Soil ecology and nutrient-dense food. The image shows the visible difference between grass-fed butter and conventional butter. Grass-fed butter is a deep yellow colour high in nutrients.
Pasture for life
The Pasture-Fed for Livestock Association in the UK has come up with some good definitions on what wholly pasture-fed produce actually mean and to ensure its integrity. In the UK a lot of the meat sold as grass-fed is also fed grain, which is a real headache they are trying to address. The organisation started in 2011 and are greatly admired and supported in the UK. Read about their standards here. In this video at the 18:08 minute time marker John Meadely speaks about the organisation and its activities. They have just started a wholly pasture-fed pilot program on Pasture for life milk with a variety of small farms like Smiling Tree farm. The images below show the difference between grass-fed and pasture-fed.
Science in ignorance about two types of Raw Milk?
In his audio interview below and also in a recent newsletter by the Raw Milk Institute, Dr. Baars say that he has come to the realisation that he and other scientists always talk about raw milk 'in general', not knowing that they need to discriminate between milk and milk. There is fresh, unprocessed milk meant for human consumption and then there is what Dr. Ted Beals call 'pre-pasteurised milk that needed to be heat treated to get rid of all its zoonotic dangers'. Dr. Baars say that 'although scientists find an independent and protecting effect of raw milk consumption on asthma and allergies, they cannot recommend a general consumption of raw milk'. He says the FDA rejects raw milk consumption because scientists are warning against it.
Dr. Baars recommend scientists start discriminating between general raw milk and milk produced by farmers connected to organisations like the Raw Milk Institute in California or to German Vorzugsmilk-farmers in Europe.
He says that Vorzugsmilk (or Certified Raw Milk) is strictly controlled each month by veterinarians in Germany. There are many benefits in educating the consumer but Dr. Baars' comments show a need to encourage the education of scientists too. They may not necessarily have access to information beyond the scope of what they have been taught to believe.
Interest in organic Certified Raw Milk has merit:
In the audio interview below, Dr. Baars say he is making an effort to help people understand and learn how to differentiate between one milk quality and another milk quality. The attention the farmer pays to his cows and the hygiene has a lot to do with the milk quality. He says it is necessary for the farmer who want to sell their raw milk to show that the milk profile is different.
Audio: This is a fascinating interview by Carl Lanore of Super Human Radio, August 2013. Dr. Baars and his group say they look at the growing interest in consuming raw unpasteurised dairy as a sign of things to come. In this interview he discusses whether the claimed health benefits of raw dairy are true and if drinking raw dairy poses real health risks. They discuss how the diet of the cow affects the milk produced and the linkage between pasteurised dairy and allergies. Carl asks if raw dairy really protect children against Asthma? (source)
For more information on the protective effect of consuming raw milk on asthma, eczema, allergies, ear infections or colds read here: Melbourne is food allergies capital of the world?
The benefits are in the cream, not in the skimmed milk
Many studies have shown full-fat dairy products to be beneficial and protective against diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, as well as weight gain. In this video Dr. Ton Baars talk about the research showing the impact full fat dairy has on our weight. He looked at 16 studies across Europe and the USA involving 87,330 dairy consumers. He says they found out that there is no correlation between milk intake and getting fat, in fact it was the opposite. Full fat participants were leaner that the skimmed milk ones.
New research show consuming skimmed milk is counter-productive. Researchers suggested that children who drink full-fat milk were likely to end up less hungry, thus less likely to snack on high calorie foods (source).
The joys of low input farming from a dairy farmer's point of view:
Dairy farmer and cheesemaker Ben Mead from Cornwall speaks about leaving the 'best practise' high output system that he has inherited behind. This system fed large amounts of grain to dairy animals to get reasonable high quantity of milk from them. He explains the joys of low input farming which is pasture based in the video on the right. Click here to read the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust Report report written by Ben Mead: Improving Pasture Quality for Animal and Ultimately Human Nutrition and Health.
Keep cows on the grass:
What the cows eat transfers to the milk and determines its profile.
Liz Earle is a researcher, writer and television broadcaster and champions the health benefits of grass-fed milk. The analysis done on conventional and pasture-raised milk shows significant differences in amounts of omega-3, omega-6 fatty acids and CLA. Maize is higher in omega-6 fatty acids as opposed to grass and clover that is high in omega-3. What the cows eat transfers to the milk and determines its profile. Science now show that higher proportion grazing ensures the milk is consistently higher in essential, important nutrients. Grass-fed milk also contains higher levels of Vitamin A and Carotene, giving the 100% grass-fed butter its rich yellow colour.
In the video on the left Liz speaks with researcher Dr. Gillian Butler from the University of Newcastle. This is one of Dr. Butler's studies that found organic milk has significant higher concentrations of beneficial fatty acids. Listen to a recent speech here.
Feedlot organic milk:
This is a Washington Post article about Aurora Organic Milk, a so called 'organic' dairy in the United States, youtube video here. Should this even be classified as organic or grass-fed? Recently there was a huge outcry in the USA about these dairies. Horizon dairy is the latest to be blasted for taking horrific corners and deceptive marketing.
About Dr. Ton Baars:
The Raw Milk Institute introduce Dr. Ton Baars as a Researcher and Professor. He is a Dutch scientist with degrees in biology, ecology, social science, and grassland science. Since 2011 he has been a senior scientist for milk quality and animal welfare at the Swiss Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FIBL). He currently spends much of his time in Poland at Juchow Farm, a 4,700-acre model farm for biodynamic agriculture, where he heads a research unit. Previously, he held the first professorship for biodynamic agriculture at Kassel University in Germany, worked for 25 years at the Louis Bolk Institute (most recently as head of the department of grassland and animal production), and taught raw milk gouda at Warmonderhof in the Netherlands.
On this website Milk & Health.com Prof. Dr. Ton Baars provides varied information about raw milk. You can utilise your internet browser (like Google Chrome) to translate the page to english. Read some of his excellent work about raw milk here:
It will be beneficial for Australian consumers, dairy farmers, politicians, scientists, regulators etc to understand that a 100% grass-fed milk is superior because of research that proves that feeding corn to cows can ruin the fatty acid content, which in turn has an effect on the nutritional profile of the milk.
"Despite official scepticism and even hostility, evidence is mounting that there are significant differences in the composition of organic and conventionally produced food and associations between the consumption of organic food and positive health outcomes (source)."
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