Benefits, nutrition and environmental health

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Milk is a staple in most kitchens, but the type you choose matters.

With growing interest in grass-fed dairy and its associated benefits, grass-fed milk is becoming a popular choice for some.

Milk from grass-fed cows contains higher levels of some key nutrients than regular cow’s milk. Some claim it could also be more environmentally friendly.

This article compares grass-fed and conventional cow’s milk to see how they differ in nutrition, health benefits, and environmental sustainability.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), grass-fed milk is cow’s milk from forage-fed cows. The fodder includes: (1)

  • grass
  • legumes
  • brassica, such as cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, kale
  • browse (young shoots and twigs)
  • cereals in their vegetative or pre-grain state

During the growing season, grass-fed cattle must have access to pasture (1).

While conventional cows are generally grain-fed, grass-fed cows consume grass as their primary food source and cannot be fed grain or grain by-products. This diet can lead to a healthier animal and a different milk composition than regular dairy products.

Research suggests that cows that eat grass produce milk and cheese with better flavor and creaminess than grain-fed cows (2).

Although grass-fed milk is marketed as such, the American quality standards for dairy products are voluntary. This means that grass-fed milk does not have an official product label.

However, the American Grassfed Association has created its own standards independently (3).

The group champions, promotes and supports American grass-fed, pasture-based farms and ranches from farm to market.

Summary

Grass-fed milk is cow’s milk produced from forage-fed cows. There is no official product label for grass-fed milk, but organizations like the American Grassfed Association maintain independent standards.

Not always. Organic milk does not necessarily mean that the cows were fed exclusively on grass.

Organic dairy cows feed on organic forage (including grass), hay or grain feed. They have more living space and access to pasture than regular dairy cows (4). Organic dairy cows that eat organic grains produce organic milk, but it is not grass-fed milk.

These cows receive no hormones or antibiotics because farmers must follow all USDA-mandated organic farming protocols (4).

The calorie and fat content of each variety of milk is comparable. The amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and calcium are identical. This is also true between milks of different fat content.

Grass-fed milk contains more sodium and cholesterol, while regular milk contains more potassium.

Here is the nutritional information for one cup (240 ml) of each type of milk:

Total fat content is similar per cup for grass-fed and conventional milk. The two differ in their fatty acid composition, which is the most significant difference.

Regular milk and organic milk contain comparable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, but grass-fed milk contains more (seven).

Changing cattle from a grain-based diet to a diet primarily based on grasses and legumes can significantly alter their fatty acid profile (seven).

Specifically, diet can alter the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which has health implications.

According to various sources, humans evolved on a diet with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 1.

Western diets are high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s, resulting in an unbalanced ratio of around 15:1. This is partly due to the excessive consumption of highly processed foods and the limited consumption of fish, as well as the addition of seed and vegetable oils in the Western diet (8).

Here are the reported omega-6 to omega-3 ratios for each type of milk from a 3-year study of 1,163 milk samples:

Other studies support the idea that grass-fed milk contains higher percentages of healthy fatty acids (9).

Summary

Milk from grass-fed and grain-fed cattle is comparable in calories, total fat, protein and calcium. However, grass-fed milk contains more than one type of fat called omega-3s.

The higher levels of omega-3s in grass-fed milk, along with its balanced fatty acid profile, may help prevent diet-related chronic diseases (seven, 8).

Omega-3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. They support brain and heart health and have been shown to reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome (ten).

Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that increase the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

A high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 increases the risk of inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and being overweight (11, 12).

According to a study, omega-3s may support the immune system and physical performance of athletes (ten).

Athletes who consumed omega-3s improved their recovery time, reduced their risk of disease and performed better in competition. Additionally, omega-3s have been beneficial for mood (ten).

When cattle are grass-fed, health-promoting phytonutrients (antioxidants with the potential to heal and protect) are found in their meat and milk.

In fact, pasture-fed cattle have many phytonutrients in amounts comparable to those found in plant foods. Phytochemicals may have anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and heart-supporting properties (13).

Summary

The higher levels of omega-3s in grass-fed milk fight inflammation and may prevent chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Research indicates that omega-3s also have a beneficial impact on the immune system and physical performance of athletes.

Grass-fed milk has a higher cost of production, in part because grass-fed farms must maintain much more acreage to feed each cow.

Depending on the brand you choose, grass-fed milk can be three times more expensive than regular milk.

For example, the cost of Horizon Organic’s grass-fed milk carton is about 68 cents per 8 ounce, compared to 20 cents for the same amount of regular milk (14, 15).

Summary

Grass-fed milk is more expensive than regular milk due to the higher cost of raising grass-fed cows.

Consumers are increasingly looking for environmentally friendly and ethical food options (16).

Compared to conventionally raised cows, grass-fed cows follow a more natural diet and seem to live in better conditions. They can feed freely because they are not restricted by a limited space.

The grass-fed movement is based on an agricultural practice known as regenerative agriculture. He argues that grazing livestock is essential for a healthy ecosystem and that grass-fed livestock improves grass health and soil fertility – while reducing greenhouse gas emissions (17).

However, a grass-based diet requires more grassland, which could worsen deforestation and biodiversity loss.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), deforestation releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Every year, hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species perish because of it (18).

Therefore, the sustainability of grass-fed milk is not straightforward.

A study looked at four grass-fed and grain-fed beef production systems used by California cattle producers. Researchers found that grass-fed production systems had higher global warming potentials (GWPs) than grain-fed systems, but required less water (19).

Grass-fed cattle take longer to gain weight (and eventually achieve lower slaughter weights) than grain-fed cattle. Therefore, it takes longer to grow them.

Additionally, grass-fed cows produce more methane than grain- and corn-fed cattle.

In order to meet current demand and production rates, it would take 30% more cattle to convert all beef produced in the United States to grass-fed systems. This conversion would lead to an increase in global methane emissions of approximately 8% (20).

Summary

Grass-fed cattle live in better conditions, but grass-fed may not be an ecologically superior choice: grass-fed cows produce more methane and use more land, which reduces biodiversity. However, research is ongoing that grass feeding can improve pasture health and reduce soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Grass-fed milk comes from forage-fed cows. It can also be organic or not.

Grass-fed milk and regular milk are comparable in calories and fat, with equal amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and calcium.

The main nutritional difference is that grass-fed milk contains more omega-3s than regular milk, which can help prevent diet-related chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

However, grass-fed milk is more expensive and requires more land to produce, which impacts the environment.

Indeed, grass-fed dairy products have several animal welfare benefits. There is, however, some debate as to whether he supports environmental sustainability efforts.

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