When deciding between organic and regular milk, a new study suggests there might be more benefits from the former.
A new study published on Dec. 9 in PLOS One showed that organic milk contained 25 percent less "bad" omega-6 fatty acids and 62 percent more "good" omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.
"We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study,” lead author Charles M. Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, said in a press release.
The researchers looked at 384 samples of organic and regular whole milk from the U.S. They discovered that the overall fat content was the same regardless of the type of milk they tested. However, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the organic milk was 2.28-to-1, while the ratio was 5.77-to-1 in the regular milk.
Typical U.S. diets range from a 10-to-1 to a 15-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, the researchers noted. Doctors recommend a 2.3-to-1 ratio for best heart health.
Omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that people need to facilitate skin and hair growth, to keep bones healthy, to regulate metabolism and to help the reproductive system, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. They are typically found in vegetable oils or in foods cooked in those substances.
In high amounts compared to omega-3 consumption, omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to cancer, excessive inflammation and autoimmune diseases, the authors note. Because of the other benefits, the American Heart Association recommends that most people consume 5 to 10 percent of their total daily calories from omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are Food and Drug Administration-approved to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Omega-3s have also been linked to better brain aging and may help improve the areas of the brain associated with mood. It can be consumed through fatty fish like salmon and white tuna.
Some studies however have downplayed brain health benefits for memory.
The study authors modeled a hypothetical diet that assumed female subjects ate an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 11.3-to-1, and figured out how much milk and dairy products they would need to drink to reach a heart-healthy level.
They found that the women could reduce their ratio by 40 percent by eating 4.5 daily servings of mostly full-fat dairy products instead of the recommended three. But, they could lower that ratio by 80 percent by eating only up to four items a day that were high in omega-6 fatty acids.
“Surprisingly simple food choices can lead to much better levels of the healthier fats we see in organic milk,” said Benbrook.
The researchers also pointed out that skim milk takes away fatty acids, so it might be better for health to drink the whole one -- but consumers should still be aware of the extra calories.
The study was funded by Organic Valley, which sells organic products.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, told LiveScience that it wasn’t shocking to see organic milk was healthier. In order to have certified organic milk, the cows have to spend a certain amount of time eating grass, which is high in omega-3.
“The omega ratios reflect grass feeding. The study is further evidence that the organic rules are doing what they are supposed to be doing," Nestle, who was not involved in the study, said.
Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health not involved in the study, said to the New York Times that he thought the research was sound. He pointed out, though, that the kinds of omega-3 fatty acids in milk is different than what you find in fatty fish. He argued the combination found in the milk study “is not as meaningful as we would like it to be.”
Despite this, he still advocated for organic over regular milk.
“You’re heading in the right direction,” he said.