Grass Fed Lies: The Truth about Organic Milk & Grass Fed Beef

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Grass fed meat

If you’ve been sucking up the extra cost of organic dairy products and grass fed beef, comforted by the fact that you’re doing what’s good for your body, I have some news for you: you’ve gained little more than peace of mind grounded in a marketing scam. There is no meaningful nutrition difference in organic milk, grass fed beef and their conventional (non organic / grass fed) counterparts.

The Truth about Organic Dairy

Organic milk is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamin D, according to an article published Feb. 16 in the British Journal of Nutrition. This meta-analysis examined the results from 170 published studies comparing the nutrient content of organic milk with conventional milk. They suggest organic milk wins by a landslide: it’s nutritionally superior to its conventional counterparts. Though there were no significant differences in saturated fat and monounsaturated fat in organic vs. conventional milk, organic milk has 56% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, 41% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), significantly more vitamin E and iron than conventional milk. Statistically speaking, they are scientifically correct. Nutritionally speaking, these differences are meaningless.

Organic milk contains 56% more omega-3 fats than regular (conventional) milk (56% more based on the total fat content). However, statistically more than a little bit is still a little bit. Milk is not considered a major source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, regardless of milk type. In fact, according to one study, 1 cup of organic whole milk has about 8.2 mg of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 11 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) compared to 6.2 mg of EPA and 9.1 mg of DHA. That’s a far cry from the 250 – 500 mg of EPA + DHA we should get, on average, each day. Fatty fish are the best way to get EPA and DHA.

milk jug
Organic Milk:
19 mg EPA + DHA

Conventional Milk:
15 mg EPA + DHA

 

 

 

Salmon

Herring, Wild
Salmon, Farmed (Atlantic)
Salmon, Wild (King)
Mackerel, Wild

1,200 mg EPA + DHA

 

 

  • EPA and DHA are heart smart – they lower blood fats (triglycerides) and blood pressure. Plus they’re good for your brain and eyes.

What about CLA? CLA is group of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in meat and milk. There are many proposed benefits associated with CLA including changes in body fat with ultra high supplemental doses of CLA. However, the difference in CLA content is also biologically meaningless – 56 mg in a glass of organic whole milk and 47 mg in a class of conventional whole milk.

The British Journal of Nutrition research also showed slightly higher beta carotene and vitamin E in organic milk. These very small differences may be due to a host of reasons including seasonal variation and breed. Milk is not a major source of these nutrients, so this has no biological impact on human health. If you want iron, eat more red meat, fish and poultry or plant-based sources including beans, lentils and peas (eat these with a vitamin C rich food to increase the absorption of plant-based iron). For vitamin E your best bets are oils, nuts and seeds.

  • Key point: statistical significance ≠ biological relevance.

What about antibiotics and hormones in dairy? I covered that in another blog post. You can read more about it here.

Is Grass Fed Beef Better?

If you’re one of many Americans paying a premium for grass fed beef because it contains more omega-3s and less saturated fat than it’s unassuming conventional counterparts, it may be time to reconsider where you’re spending your grocery money.

The omega-3s in grass fed beef are different than the kind in fatty fish. Fatty fish and algae contain EPA and DHA. There’s a third omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), found in plants including walnuts, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds. Grass fed beef contains ALA because flaxseeds are added to their feed. While EPA and DHA lower blood fats (triglycerides) and are tied to heart benefits, ALA does not lower blood fats and is not associated with the same heart health benefits. ALA rich foods also contain a variety of other bioactive compounds that may act independently or synergistically to improve cardiovascular disease risk factors (eat the whole food not just ALA). The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA but this conversion process is inefficient. Less than 4% of ALA is converted to EPA and less than 1% makes its way to DHA. ALA ≠EPA + DHA. A 5-ounce serving of grass fed beef contains a whopping 20 to 30 mg of ALA (slight variations in brands of grass fed beef based on the cow’s diet). The Adequate Intake for ALA is 1,600 and 1,100 grams per day for adult men and women, respectively. Eat grass fed beef and you’ll get 2 – 3% of the AI for ALA for men and 1-2% for women.

Grass fed beef and conventional beef have the same amount of saturated fat with some differences in the types of saturated fatty acids. The difference in CLA content of grass fed and conventional beef is tiny. According to a review from Dave et al. (Nutr J 2010;9:10), it ranges from 0.13 – 2.65 (grams CLA/100 grams of fat in the meat) in conventional meat and 0.43 – 5.14 (grams CLA/100 grams of fat in the meat) in grass fed beef depending on the cow and feed. So, you could be getting less total CLA in certain cuts of grass fed beef than conventional beef. 

What about the Bacteria in Conventional Beef?
You cook your beef right? Bacteria is killed during cooking. Moot point.

Is Grass Fed More Sustainable? What about Hormones and Antibiotics?
I will address this and other issues in the next post. Stay tuned….

Organic dairy products and grass fed beef come in beautiful, higher end packaging with natural hues of green and brown outlining their superiority to modest looking products that sit beside them on store shelves. If you love the taste, stick with your organic milk and grass fed beef. But don’t buy into the marketing hype.

References

Circulation 2011;123(20):2292-333.
British Journal of Nutrition 2016;115:1043–1060.
PLoS One 2013; 8(12): e82429.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2001;74:612–9.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999;69:890–7.
British Medical Journal 1996;313:84–90.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009;89(5):1649S-56S.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006;83(6):S1526-1535.
PLoS One. 2013; 8(12): e82429.
Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:10.

 

 

 

 

35 thoughts on “Grass Fed Lies: The Truth about Organic Milk & Grass Fed Beef”

  1. Great review of 2 important consumer topics Marie. Personally I prefer grass fed beef because of the taste – but agree it’s important not confuse nutrient content with flavor profile!

  2. You leave out a bunch of relevant information about the benefits to the animals managed with organic practices. No antibiotics, hormones, no pesticides or herbicides, no GMO feed, no tail docking of cows, no milk replacer fed to calves, and animals are not fed the filler, like cardboard, that conventional dairies use. Also, sustainability is not about length of time to get to market, rather, it is about whether or not the farming practices impact the environment. For the reasons above, organic farming is clearly more superior from a sustainability standpoint! This article does not consider the main tenets of organic farming, which is about responsible stewardship and humane treatment of animals.

      1. First, thanks for publishing my comment. The studies that you cite about the relative nutritional values of organic vs conventionally produced milk are funded by the same corporate entities that employ conventional dairying practices. I find the price argument spurious in these studies- environmental impacts from conventional dairies have unseen costs that will ultimately impact all consumers. The most costly is environmental pollution, but the karmic cost of treating animals as production units instead of sentient beings that deserve respect should be considered as well. As consumers, I believe we should understand the true costs of the practices we support when we purchase the products of those systems. It may be more expensive to buy responsibly raised dairy and meat, but personally, I don’t want the stain of animal mistreatment to subsidize a cheaper price for me.

          1. Google it online. Go to your library. There are a multitude of resources on the mistreatment of animals. A good one is titled “Eating Animals”. Go on the PETA website and you will see more than you want to know about the mistreatment of animals. Watch the movie “Food Inc.” That should keep you busy for a while. Opting for organic/grass fed is not always about the nutritional value but of ethics. Have you ever seen a factory cattle farm? I have, by accident. I took a wrong and ended up on country roads in the beautiful hills of Northern California. There were some small farms and then came upon a locked gate of a factory farm. The smell was overwhelming and the site of what I could see unbelieveable (disgusting). This is something you will also see on “Food Inc.” So, I think that will keep you busy for a while.

    1. Trystan, you are woefully uninformed about so called conventional farming. My husband and I farmed for 50 years. Ten years in Hysham and nearly 40 in Billings. The farm is still going strongly with modern day farming practices. There are laws that growers in this country have to live with that growers in other countries don’t have to live with. As for hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and all of the other items you mentioned are also controlled by laws. I’m sure you won’t believe anything I say,but the fact is I have lived the life and walked the walk. You can continue your ill informed attacks on conventional agriculture until you have put American farmers out of business. Then you will either grow your own food or buy from over seas where there are no laws to protect your food.

    2. Your delusional if you think organic is sustainable. Consider just one fact. Less than 1% of agricultural land now is considered organic. There’s not enough organic fertilizer in the world to even come close to bringing the other 99% up to the nutrient levels necessary.

    3. Hi Trystan,
      Stay tuned. I’m going to address these topics in an upcoming post. I have to dig through the research and talk to a few experts to make sure I’m providing accurate, unbiased information. Thanks for bringing this up!
      Marie

    4. Thanks for addressing this issue. I was wondering if she was going to address the real reason for ingesting organic meat, veggies etc. No hormones, antibiotics, gmo’s etc.

  3. What about eggs? Chickens fed freely with grass( insects, etc) gave a superior kind of eggs in all means, nitritional (+omega 3) and in flavor, without mention the goodies of being without hormones and such, and the sanitary issue( less sallmonella for example). In this case the contribution of omega 3 fatty acids is more prominent that the beef i think because the nature of the egg itself, and it maybe cause a difference nutritionally speaking.

    Id like to see you elaborate in that subject too. Good post
    Cheers

  4. What about the levels of omega-3s in GrassFed milk. I’ve read that omega-3s are not much higher in organic milk, because the feed is often the same as conventional (corn, grain), but when a cow is returned to its natural diet, omega-3 level can increase by 6x. Do you have any info regarding GrassFed milk?

  5. There are many perspectives on the notion that ‘organic’ is more sustainable, and many claims as to why, that are based upon either misinformation or misunderstanding of practices followed. The pervasive notion that ‘organic’ growers do not use pesticides, hormones or antibiotics is common to most of these conversations and is patently false. Organic systems do, in fact, use pesticides from a long list of allowed pesticides for organic systems. Many, but not all, of those allowed pesticides are classified as ‘natural’. The notion that natural is inherently safe is also pervasive in such conversations, which is also inherently incorrect. Most consumers are not equipped to make determinations as to which pesticides are safer. How can they be when so many can’t define what a pesticide is, why it might be used or explain the difference between a herbicide or an insecticide? Most also have no idea which pesticides are on the ‘approved’ list for use in USDA certified organic systems, let alone know what toxicity levels are for various pesticides.

    The comment from Trystan is a perfect case in point. Not only does he clearly not understand what conventional dairy farms do, he doesn’t understand why. Unfortunately, most consumers do not.

    The sustaninabity question is complex, with almost unlimited variablities. Unfortunately, most consumers want a simple answer and have been influenced not by science, but by the hyperbole from marketing, pseudoscience and political sources to expect that there is one. In my experience there is no one ‘right way’ to farm. I also know that the agriculture knowledge base is constantly improving and agricultural practices are constantly changing, regardless of production methods followed.

    My hope is that as you investigate the sustainability topic further is that you spend time with a variety of experts from land grant universities in order to look at the entire, and global, picture. I also hope that you talk to farmers to gain their perspective as to how and why they chose particular practices. If you need assistance making contact with full time farmers there a many agricultural organizations that can help, including but not limited to commodity processing cooperatives, commodity groups, Farm Bureau and Conservation Districts. It might not hurt to talk with a variety of food processors, too.

    1. You seem very knowledgeable about the subject. I agree there is no one “right” way to farm. Great points and I will reach out to all for their prospective! I appreciate it!

  6. This article only covers the nutritional content of the meats but does not begin to touch on the true health aspect. Yes, the two meats are very similar in their fat and protein content, but the way they get broken down in the body and the bi-product from the process is much different. Not to mention the long term affects of GMO-grains on our bodies. The facts in the article are only used to hammer home the point and not intended to address the true health aspect. There is much more to this story and I encourage all that are interested to do more research.

  7. I’ve been a Paleo advocate for several years. My understanding the reason why us paleo foodies are selecting grassfed beef is because of the fatty acid profile of grassfed beef has a ratio of approximately 2:1 (omega 6 to omega 3). Whereas the feedlot variety is more like 4:1 or higher. Of course I could go down the rabbit hole by citing that Americans are consuming why too much omega 6 proinflammatory industrial seed/vegetable oils. I would also select the grassfed variety due to its nutritional density. Have you looked at any folks that are adhering to a strict paleo diet? I’m also with Trystan of the sustainability front.

    1. I haven’t looked at Paleo in particular. There is no exact ratio of omega 6:omega 3 however, if one wants omega 3s, I’d go for rich sources including fatty fish or some of the plant based omega-3s I mentioned.

  8. Just comparing organic is not precise enough for me. First off most organic is ultra pasteurized which kills off even more nutrients than regular pasteurization. Most people who research nutrition would prefer grass fed organic “raw” milk which would be a more interesting comparison to factory milk. 56% for one nutrient seems pretty significant and there are a lot more nutrients and micro nutrients that could be compared like vitamin K & A. Another interesting comparison would the hormones levels and lactose content of different versions of milk.

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      I love ultra pasteurized! It keeps the milk longer!
      If you want a milk with no lactose, get lactose free. 56% is indeed statistically significant but my point was that this difference means little for your overall dietary intake of omega-3s.

  9. Trystan, as far as the environment goes, other than pesticides, inorganic farming is greener than organic because more land is used for organic and also more methane gas is produced when cows eat grass and veggies (based on the findings I read though you may have read different statistics.) However, the pesticide thing along with hormones and antibiotics are enough to keep me buying organic, that is when we do buy meat. We have cut down on meat, and particularly red meat, but not because of nutritional values discussed in this article.

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