By Dr. Mercola
The secret is out: grass-fed dairy products are not only rich, creamy and reminiscent of the way dairy products used to be, but they're also better for your health, the environment and the cows providing the milk.
As a result, demand for grass-fed dairy products is growing at an impressive rate. Organic, grass-fed yogurt, for instance, is experiencing 82 percent dollar growth, which is more than three times the growth of yogurt that does not contain the grass-fed label, according to Organic Valley dairy.1
Their "Grassmilk" brand is the top-selling grass-fed dairy brand in the U.S., and it's had double-digit growth since its 2012 debut. Organic Valley stated that their Grassmilk goes beyond the pasturing standards for ruminants required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program.
To be clear, there's a lot of confusion about the term "grass-fed," and in many cases, it's an abused term like the word "natural." Organic Valley and other U.S. grass-fed dairy producers are teaming up to change this, and the first steps have been laid for a new industry-wide grass-fed label for dairy.
New Industry Standard for Grass-Fed Labeling
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) hosted a stakeholder meeting to start the ball rolling on a new industry-wide grass-fed dairy standard. AGA explained:2
"Rapid growth of the grassfed dairy segment and the consequent proliferation of grass- and pasture-based claims pose a challenge for producers, retailers, and consumers in the dairy industry.
AGA convened the meeting to discuss mutual concerns about practices, standards, protection of legitimate claims, and avoidance of consumer confusion about grass-based products."
The goals of the meeting included determining potential for agreement for standards for grass-fed dairy products, assessing options for protecting the integrity of grass-based dairy products and establishing a unified standard and market integrity. According to AGA, discussions centered on he following:
- Animal health and nutrition
- Transparency of practices and claims
- Holistic land and soil management
- Support and validation for producers
- Building a certified organic standard while providing a bridge with non-organic grass-fed claims
Don Davis, chair of AGA's standards and certification committee, stated:
"We feel this meeting was an important first step to develop a clear and definable industry standard that will encourage producers to develop grassfed dairy programs and also to provide assurance to consumers when they see the term "grassfed" on a carton of milk or other dairy products."
USDA Revoked Their Grass-Fed Standard in January 2016
In 2007, the USDA released voluntary standards for a grass-fed claim on meat. It suggested grass-fed animals eat nothing but grass and stored grasses, and have access to pasture during the growing season.
The standards were far from perfect; for instance, they allowed animals to be confined for certain periods of time and did not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in the animals.
Nonetheless, many viewed it as a step in the right direction that would provide increased transparency into how meat is raised and allow consumers to make more informed choices when buying their food.
In January 2016, however, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service announced that it withdrew the grass-fed standard, citing a lack of authority to define the claim. Those using the USDA's grass-fed standard were given 30 days to convert it to a private grass-fed standard or develop a new grass-fed standard.
Is More Confusion Coming to Grass-Fed Meat Packaging?
Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), is among those who believe the withdrawal will only add more confusion to food labeling. He stated in a NSAC press release:3
"Rather than bringing consistency and common sense to our food marketing system, USDA seems to be throwing in the towel … This is terrible public policy that will create a multitude of non-uniform labels, which will open the door to more confusion and subterfuge in the marketplace.
It is an affront to consumers, who have the right to know how their food is raised, and to the farmers whose innovation and hard work created the trusted grass fed label standard.
NSAC and our member organizations believe this reversal is a detriment to a fair and transparent food system and we urge the USDA to come up with an alternative solution quickly."
What Do the Different Grass-Fed Labels Mean?
When you're shopping for grass-fed meats or dairy, there are currently a handful of different grass-fed labels you may see, each with slightly different standards.
This is why grass-fed dairy producers are hoping to reach an agreement on industry-wide standards and one grass-fed label for dairy. The AGA grass-fed standards for meat include the following4
- The animals can only be fed grass and forage
- The animals cannot be confined
- The animals may not receive antibiotics or hormones
- The animals must be born and raised in the U.S.
Other grass-fed-label standards for meat are as follows:
• Food Alliance Certified Grass-Fed: Animals must be raised on pasture or range, where they can browse on an exclusive diet of grass and forage plants. Animals may not be fed grain or grain by-products, or receive hormone or antibiotic treatments of any kind.
All Food Alliance Certified livestock producers must meet standards for safe and fair working conditions, soil and water conservation, and protection of wildlife habitat, as well as healthy and humane animal treatment.5
• Animal Welfare Approved Certified Grass-Fed: According to AWA:
"To gain AWA Certified Grassfed certification, you must feed your animals only grass and other forages from weaning onwards. As with non-grassfed AWA certification, you must also raise your animals outside on range or pasture for their entire lives.
No growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics are permitted and all Certified AWA animals must be slaughtered at an AWA-recommended slaughterplant."6
• Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) Grass-Fed: This label has standards of what kind of plants the cows can eat (among others).
The following feeds are not allowed: grain or grain byproducts; corn kernel or corn kernel byproducts; cake or meal foodstuffs; concentrates; food processing byproducts or waste; small grain or corn allowed to mature past the vegetative state; and sprouted grains.7
Why Is Grass-Fed Dairy Better?
Grass is a cow's natural food. Corn and other grains are not. When cows eat grains, as they do in the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that produce the milk used for most U.S. dairy products, their body composition changes.
Most importantly for you, these changes include an alteration in the balance of essential fats.
Milk (and meat) from cows raised primarily on pasture has been repeatedly shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the healthy fats omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). According to a study published in the journal PLOS One:8
"Milk from cows consuming significant amounts of grass and legume-based forages contains higher concentrations of ω-3 FAs [omega-3 fats] and CLA than milk from cows lacking routine access to pasture and fed substantial quantities of grains, especially corn. In turn, lactating women consuming such milk have an increased CLA concentration in their breast milk.
… This study confirms earlier findings that milk from cows consuming significant amounts of grass and legume-based forages contains less LA [omega-6 linoleic acid] and other ω-6 Fas [omega-6 fat] and higher concentrations of ALA, CLA, and the long-chain ω-3s EPA and DPA, compared to cows lacking routine access to pasture and fed substantial quantities of grains.
In most countries, lactating cows on organically managed farms receive a significant portion of daily DMI [dry matter intake] from pasture and conserved, forage-based feeds, while cows on conventional farms receive much less. In … [a] U.S. government dairy sector survey, only 22% of cows had access to pasture, and for most of these, access was very limited in terms of average daily DMI."
More Reasons to Avoid Skim Milk
In addition to looking for grass-fed dairy, also stick with full-fat dairy products; research continues to build that they're far superior for your health than low-fat or fat-free varieties. In one of the latest studies, published in the journal Circulation, people who had higher levels of three byproducts of full-fat dairy had a 46 percent lower risk of diabetes than those with lower levels.9 Lead study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian told Time:10
"I think these findings together with those from other studies do call for a change in the policy of recommending only low-fat dairy products … There is no prospective human evidence that people who eat low-fat dairy do better than people who eat whole-fat dairy."
On the contrary, research suggests full-fat dairy products may help with weight loss and chronic-disease prevention. For instance, women who ate at least one serving of full-fat dairy a day gained 30 percent less weight over a nine-year period than women who ate only low-fat (or no) dairy products.11 Previous studies have also shown that consuming full-fat dairy may help reduce your risk of:
- Cancer: Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat found naturally in cow's milk, significantly lowers the risk of cancer. In one study, those who ate at least four servings of high-fat dairy foods each day had a 41 percent lower risk of bowel cancer than those who ate less than one.12 Each increment of two servings of dairy products reduced a woman's colon cancer risk by 13 percent.
- Heart Disease: People who ate the most full-fat dairy were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, according to a 16-year study of Australian adults.13
- Type 2 Diabetes: People who ate eight portions of full-fat dairy products a day cut their risk of diabetes by nearly 25 percent compared to those who ate fewer portions.14
Support Raw, Grass-Fed Milk Products
Raw milk dairy products from organically raised pasture-fed cows rank among some of the healthiest foods you can consume. They're far superior in terms of health benefits compared to pasteurized-milk products, and if statistics are any indication, they're safer, too. While many believe that milk must be pasteurized before it can be safely consumed, it's worth remembering that raw milk was consumed for ages before the invention of pasteurization.
It's also important to realize that pasteurization is only really required for certain kinds of milk; specifically that from cows raised in crowded and unsanitary conditions, which is what you find in CAFOs. Your dairy products should ideally be pasture-raised, NOT pasteurized. Organically raised cows that are allowed to roam free on pasture where they can graze for their natural food source produce very different milk.
Their living conditions promote and maintain their health and optimize their milk in terms of the nutrients and beneficial bacteria it contains. Getting your raw grass-fed milk and other food from a local organic farm or co-op is one of the best ways to ensure you're getting high-quality food.
You can locate a raw, grass-fed milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk website. California residents can find raw grass-fed milk retailers by using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.