Let’s clear up the organic milk versus grass-fed milk confusion once and for all.
By Kristy Alpert
The difference between milk alternatives such as oat milk and almond milk is clear, but when it comes to choosing between different forms of cow’s milk, even the healthiest options can seem decidedly less obvious. Even after you’ve decided on which fat percentage you want (whole, skim, 1%, 2%, etc.), you’ve still got to decide between conventional, organic, or, the latest addition to the dairy section, grass-fed. Thankfully, the labels are there to help, so some simple decoding can go a long way in deciding if grass-fed milk is better than organic for you or your family, or if organic milk is the way to go.
What Is Organic Milk?
In order for milk to be certified as organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and carry the “USDA Organic” seal, the milk must come from cows that have not been treated with antibiotics or given hormones for growth or reproduction. Cows producing organic milk eat a mixture of organic grains and grasses, where every step of the food chain must be certified organic—from food the animals eat to the soil the food is grown in—and the milk must come from cows that receive at least 30% of their diet from pasture, which equates to at least 120 days out in the fresh air. The rest of the year, cows must live in well-sanitized spaces with good ventilation and water supply, and must be given access to exercise areas, fresh air, and sunlight year-round.
The Takeaway: All USDA-labeled organic milk is grass-fed to some extent.
What Is Grass-Fed Milk?
Unfortunately, the term “grass-fed” is less regulated than the term “organic” on a milk label, and many companies have slapped the term on their cartons without much thought or oversight. Brands like Organic Valley and Maple Hill worked together to create a standard and “Certified Grass-Fed Organic Dairy” seal through a third-party, Organic Plus Trust. “When you see ‘100% grass-fed’ on Organic Valley grassmilk milk it means all of the cow’s nutrition comes from fresh grasses, dried and stored forages, and a small amount of supplements like molasses … but no grains,” explains Elizabeth McMullen, a spokesperson with the Organic Valley Coop. “This is true year-round.”
The Takeaway: Look for the “Certified Grass-Fed Organic Dairy” seal to make sure your milk is truly from grass-fed cows.
Is Grass-Fed Milk Better Than Organic?
All organic milk comes from cows that get plenty of time outside, but cows that eat a 100% grain-free diet are generally healthier and produce better milk. Cows are “ruminants,” which means they have a four-chambered stomach (i.e., a rumen) designed to digest grass. Feeding cows anything other than grass can change the pH of the stomach and potentially create an acidic stomach environment. The added nutrients cows get from eating an organic all-grass diet definitely makes a difference in the milk they produce. In fact, a recent study from Food Science and Nutrition found that the milk from grass-fed cows contained 147% more omega-3s than conventional milk and 52% more omega-3s than organic milk.
The Takeaway: Not only is a grass-fed diet better for the cows, but it’s better for the people drinking the milk, too!
Of course, cost, expiration dates, and availability all play roles in your dairy aisle (or nondairy milk) decisions, but now you’re equipped with more information to make the choice that’s best for you and your family.