By Jessica Webb
Milk “does a body good.” It’s high in calcium and vitamins A and D. It’s safe, since it’s regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s everywhere. Milk is milk, right? The store brands are cheap and easy to get. So why should you care about local milk?
It may be hard to believe, but local milk can be better for you when it is from small dairy farms that feed their cows grass. It’s not so much an argument of organic or non-organic, but of grass-fed versus grain-fed milk cows. The more time the cows spend in a pasture grazing (and the more grass they take in), the healthier the milk usually ends up being. The health benefits of drinking milk from grass-fed cows versus grain-fed are impressive: higher vitamin content, higher conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) content, and higher omega-3 content.
Why does grass-fed milk have higher vitamin content in comparison with store-brand milk? Imagine that a pitcher is filled with lemonade. The more water added to the pitcher, the less lemony taste that is in the final drink. The same thing goes for milk. The more milk a cow produces, the more diluted her milk becomes. The things being diluted in this case are the essential minerals and vitamins making up the goodness that is milk. The commercial dairy typically pushes its cows to produce up to twenty times more milk than the small dairy farmer’s cows. The cows do not have time to replenish their body with vitamins and nutrients that will pass into milk because they are constantly being pushed for more of it. On a small dairy farm, the cows have plenty of time to make the milk they naturally make under much less stress. Because of this treatment, the milk produced in these farms is higher in vitamins A and D, as well as calcium.
Because of the push for more milk from each cow, things other than vitamin content have suffered. Quality has also suffered. The milk we get has less conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), a cancer-fighting fatty acid. Milk from a grass-fed cow can have as much as five times the amount of CLAs as milk from a grain-fed cow. In an Eat Wild article, Jo Robinson discusses the findings of a French study on CLA’s effect on breast cancer. The study showed that women who had the highest amounts of CLAs in their diets have an average of a 74 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women with very little CLAs in their diets.
Natural CLA can do something other than just fight cancer. When another group of scientists were investigating the cancer-fighting properties of CLA, they produced an identical synthetic compound for testing that had the same cancer-fighting power. However, when scientists did their testing, rats treated with natural CLA produced more CLA in their tissues. Scientists believe that, for some reason, the rats were converting another healthy fatty acid found in milk, trans-vaccenic acid (TVA), into CLA. The synthetic compound, while identical, did not yield these results. CLA, the natural kind at least, can possibly replicate itself after consumption, making grass-fed milk even healthier for you.
On the subject of health, consider the famous omega-3 fatty acid. There are two types of omega fatty acids: 3 and 6. Humans need both. Most people now know why omega-3s are important, including lower risk of things like heart disease and diabetes. In the 1980s omega-3s were not considered essential to the human diet, and because of that the American diet is still leeched of omega-3s, prompting many people to take fish oil capsules daily. At the same time, our omega-6 intake went through the roof with the excessive use of things like butter. Susan Allport, in “The Queen of Fats” says that: “There’s a great deal of evidence that Omega-6 rich diet predisposes us to certain forms of cancers, including breast and colon and prostate cancer.”
You can stop taking fish oil, folks. There’s a better way to get omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed milk shines again. Milk from grass-fed cows contains an average 1:1 ratio of omega 3s and 6s. In “The Queen of Fats,” Allport explains that the ideal ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s should be about 1:1 (The Japanese have this and a Mediterranean diet is roughly 3:2. Americans’ is 4:1). Grass-fed milk has the ideal ratio of both of these essential nutrients. If your entire diet is like this, Allport explains, you have a lower risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease, allergies, obesity, diabetes, dementia, autoimmune disorders and more.
It comes down to the cows being healthy and getting all of the nutrients they need. If cows eat things like grain, they contain more omega-6s than omega-3s. The cows are not as healthy because their diet is not as much so. This gets passed in their milk. The grain-fed cow produces milk higher in omega-6s and less omega-3s, while their grass-fed cousins have the ideal ratio.
Grass is a cow’s natural, balanced diet and keeps them healthy. Unfortunately, it’s also more expensive than producing milk from a grain-fed cow. This is why most dairy farmers (even organic ones) grain-feed rather than grass-feed. Land and water for thousands of dairy cows are expensive. It all comes down to money, and money is why local dairies like Snowville Creamery are faced with hard times. Thanks to Snowville Creamery, fresh, affordable, grass-fed, local milk is a blessing to the Athens area. Eat healthier. Buy local.
Jensen, S. K. “Quantitative secretion and maximal secretion capacity of retinol, beta-carotene and alpha-tocopherol into cows’ milk.” J Dairy Res 66, no. 4 (1999): 511-22.
Robinson, Jo. “Super Healthy Milk.” Eat Wild. 11 May 2009 http://www.eatwild.com/articles/superhealthy.html.
Ip, C., S. Banni, et al. (1999). “Conjugated Linoleic Acid-Enriched Butter Fat Alters Mammary Gland Morphogenesis and Reduces Cancer Risk in Rats.” J Nutr 129(12): 2135-2142.
Allport, Susan. “The Queen of Fats: An Author’s Quest to Restore Omega-3 to the Western Diet.” Interview with Acres U.S.A. Acres U.S.A. Apr. 2008: 56-62.