Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Organic Whole Milk: More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Yesterday, NPR's The Salt blog featured the article Fresh Research Finds Organic Milk Packs In Omega-3s. The study is published in PLOS One and spans 18 months, comparing milk from conventionally fed cows (feed rich in corn and soy beans) and organically fed cows (pasture-fed, including grass and legumes). The findings? Organic whole milk contains approximately 60% higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and 25% lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids. 

The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids has been studied extensively, and currently evidence supports  a target omega-3/omega-6 ratio of 2.3:1 to minimize cardiovascular risk. The typical Western diet typically contains dramatically higher omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids (the ratio is estimated to be around 10-15:1. The tendency to shy away from full fat dairy products (for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends switching to reduced fat milk by age 2) stems from the relatively high amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to higher LDL levels. Yet, there has not been a lot of research into the potentially cardioprotective effects of dairy products. 

Alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the three main omega-3 fatty acids, all of which play a vital role in controlling inflammation, blood clotting, and numerous other functions for optimal health. In particular, inflammation has been posited to play a role in a variety of disease states, including autoimmunity and cancer. Omega-3 fatty acids dampen inflammatory cytokines, while omega-6 fatty acids to not, hence the goal of higher omega-3 fatty acids to achieve a overall anti-inflammatory state. 

This is the first large study in the United States comparing omega-3 and omega-6 content of organic vs. non-organically raised cows and arguably, further studies should specifically assess the health outcomes (cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmunity) of those whole consume organic, full fat dairy products. 

For now, there are already many well-established rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids - flax seeds, walnuts, and salmon are the big three that come to mind. Although dairy is higher in saturated fat, it is certainly not overwhelming if consumed as part of an overall balanced diet. This new data promises to bring a delicious new actor to the omega-3 fatty acid stage. I'll drink a tall glass of organic whole milk to that! 

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