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Dairy Decisions: Conventional, Organic or Grass-Fed?

We recently took a look at dairy consumption, its fat content and its relation to heart health. Then we looked at whether full-fat or non-fat dairy made a difference in managing weight. As you’ve hopefully seen, from a health perspective there’s good reason to choose full fat over low-fat or non-fat dairy options. Generally speaking, you have a few options of where to get your dairy from if you choose to consume it. At grocery stores and co-ops, you can choose from conventional dairy, organic dairy and, in many stores, grass-fed dairy. A fourth option that is available in some states, usually directly from a farm, is raw dairy. The following briefly reviews the differences among these options.

Conventional Dairy

Conventionally raised dairy cows, like other animals, are typically confined to small living quarters. Because the animals are kept so close together, the spread of disease is more common, so treatment with antibiotics is common practice. This makes the cows more resistant to antibiotics and possibly increases the risk of antibiotic resistance for those consuming the dairy as well.

These animals are typically fed a diet of corn and grain, different than their natural diet of grass. The dietary change causes a change in the makeup of the fat found in their milk. In addition, the feed is not organic, so it often contains herbicides and pesticides.

Most U.S. cows (and many other animals) are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). It is this process that creates the most controversy about the environmental and health effects of consuming animal products.

As you can imagine, this can result in a number of problems. Compared to cows that are free to move and graze, the close quarters require a different way of handling manure, which can lead to runoff from the feedlots to neighboring farms. The runoff includes contaminants like pesticides, herbicides and bacteria, which can negatively affect neighboring lakes and wells.

The corn and other grains the cattle are fed in CAFOs react differently in their digestive systems than their traditional diet of grass. The result can be the production of a significant amount of greenhouse gas. Other issues include air pollution from some of the other compounds released — such as nitrogen and hydrogen sulfide — antibiotic resistance and the treatment of the animals.

The perceived benefit of conventional farming is lower pricing and higher production. The use of hormones is also common practice in the United Sates, which helps to increase milk production, but this raises additional ethical questions about the treatment of the animals.

Organic Dairy

Organic dairy may be perceived as healthier, but there is some controversy in whether it’s true or not. Many organic brands raise their dairy cows on CAFOs, so the environment isn’t much different than those on a conventional farm. According to the USDA, the production of organic dairy requires that feed given to dairy cows is grown using only organic pesticides and herbicides, and the cows are not treated with hormones to increase their milk production. But drugs to treat disease may still be used, and because of their tight quarters and corn-based diets, the rate of disease may not be any lower than cows on a conventional farm. Publications from the industry, such as the Dairy Council, say that there is no difference in safety between conventionally produced dairy and organic dairy, since milk is tested for pesticides, herbicides and hormones. From a nutrient standpoint, the biggest factor determining the quality of nutrients found in dairy is the food the cows eat. Since many organic dairy farms feed their cows corn and other grains like conventional dairy farms, there is not a significant difference in the nutrients in the milk.

Of course, there are other farms that raise their cows on pasture, feed them grass, and are certified organic, so without doing some homework, consumers may not always know the difference. We’ll look at pasture-raised/grass-fed dairy next.

The main point when buying organic dairy is that consumers choosing organic over conventional are making a decision to help support certain farming practices, such as avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic hormones. Choosing organic dairy helps to greatly reduce or eliminate the possibility of these compounds being in the dairy, although conventionally raised dairy is not supposed to have these compounds after processing either. If there is a nutrient difference between organic and conventional, it is likely a small difference.

Grass-Fed Dairy

Pasture-raised/grass-fed dairy and meat are more the exception than the rule in the United States. This is quite different than countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, where many production methods used in the U.S. are not allowed. Foods in these countries do not have label claims announcing that they are grass-fed, because it is expected. In the United States, you have to do a little more label reading to identify which brands raise their cattle on pasture year-round.

Raising animals on pasture creates a different business model for the farmers because space requirements increase. Interestingly, about 40% of our nation’s corn production is for feed for cattle. If that land were used for grazing, some suggest there would be plenty of space for the cattle to graze to meet U.S. dairy supply needs.

Raising animals on pasture is better for the environment as well. Grass and forage are the natural diet for cows. Compared to living on feedlots and consuming corn and other grains, pasture-raised/grass-fed cows maintain better health, produce less gas and help to naturally fertilize the surrounding land.

The major difference in nutrients of grass-fed compared with organic or conventional dairy is the types of fats found in the dairy. The total amount of fat per serving of raw dairy remains about the same. However, the omega-3 fatty acid alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is higher in grass-fed dairy. Conjugated linoleic acid levels (CLA) are consistently higher in grass-fed dairy. CLA has been shown to have benefits for improving body composition as well as potential anti-cancer properties. Vitamin E and A levels have been shown to be higher in grass-fed dairy and meat as well.

The decision about buying grass-fed/pasture-raised dairy can be looked at from an environmental, ethical and nutritional point of view. Because supplies of grass-fed dairy are less in the United States, the price today is higher than conventional or even organic options.

In many cases, grass-fed/pasture-raised dairy is not labeled “organic” because qualifying for the use of  the organic label is quite expensive. Imported products from countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina rarely have a USDA organic stamp, though these products are produced in ways that would qualify them as organic.

One last consideration for buying grass-fed/pasture-raised dairy and meat: because the nutrient quality is different than non-grass-fed organic or conventional dairy, some people who have sensitivities to dairy may find they can handle grass-fed products without issue. There are two additional pieces to dairy processing you should know about, as some of the products available to you vary in these last two processes: homogenization and pasteurization.


When milk is first retrieved from cows, the fat in the milk is found in globules of varying size. Because fat is hydrophobic (it repels water), the fat rises to the top and the rest of the milk stays at the bottom. To make milk more appealing to consumers, most milk is homogenized.

Homogenization makes the fat globules much smaller and uniform in size. This allows the water, fat, protein and carbohydrate to mix together in a way that the milk looks uniform throughout the bottle. It also allows milk from many different sources to be easily mixed together.

Homogenization is not necessary and does not contribute to any health benefits. Some suggest the mechanical change to the size of the fat cells may be detrimental. Most grocery stores carry at least one non-homogenized option. Consumers just need to shake up their milk prior to pouring it to remix the fat with the rest of the milk.

Pasteurization and Raw Milk

Pasteurization is a necessary part of milk production to kill off harmful bacteria. This is especially true with conventionally raised dairy because bacteria like e. coli. are more common due to the diets and living space in CAFOs. There is enormous debate about whether pasteurization would be necessary if milk was produced from pasture-raised/grass-fed cows, assuming the production methods were kept sanitary.

Pasteurization requires milk to be brought up to very high temperatures, which may change the nutrient quality of milk and any other dairy products made with milk. Proponents of pasteurization see this as necessary to kill off bacteria. Others say that the bacteria wouldn’t be there if the animals were raised differently.

This debate has led some consumers to seek out raw milk directly from farmers. And in some states, consumers are able to buy raw milk directly from their local farmers. But in others, this practice is strictly forbidden. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund has created a state-by-state map showing what the local laws are for selling and purchasing raw milk. You may have more luck with finding raw milk cheese at your grocery store than actual raw milk. You’ll usually find the difference in the ingredients list.


The type of dairy you purchase can be decided upon from several different perspectives: price, environmental, ethical and/or nutritional implications. For many people, a first step may be to simply choose organic over conventional. As you learn more, you may make different choices over time. For your health, just make the best decision you can based on the current circumstances you’re in. When it comes to dairy, hopefully you’ll be able to stop for a few seconds the next time you’re at the store and understand the options that are staring at you in the dairy case. With a little more understanding, you may choose differently than you did in the past. We still have one big question to address about dairy, and that’s whether you should be consuming it at all. Dairy allergies and sensitivities are quite common. We’ll look at this in an upcoming blog post.

A couple of interesting reports were used to generate some of the information above. They are listed below as references and as suggested reading if you want to learn more on this topic.[i],[ii]

How do you decide what type of dairy to buy? Do you have a favorite product or brand? If so, share in the comments below.

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Union of Concerned Scientists. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating. 2006.

[ii] Kastel MA. Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk. The Cornucopia Institute. April 2006.


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Reader Comments (2)

I found Kerrygold Irish Butter at Sprouts. This would seem to be the only butter I can easily buy that is grass fed. I kerrygold grass fed? Their ads brag about the grass.

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBob Schulhof

It is quite evident that the author was never raised on a dairy farm or mostly likely has never even visited a modern dairy farm.

Author - "These animals are typically fed a diet of corn and grain, different than their natural diet of grass."

Not true - maybe beef cattle but not dairy - common feed ingredients include haylage (chopped up hay), corn silage (the entire corn plant from ear to stalk), soybean meal, wet distillers grain, fruit, ground corn and a mineral & vitamin mix.
If cows ate 100% grass with no supplemental feed they would have 100% grass with no supplemental feed. My guess is they would have some nutrient deficiencies and excesses throughout any given cow’s lactation.

People please do your homework before you decide to buy only grass fed or organic foods vs. non organic. The author even states that Since many organic dairy farms feed their cows corn and other grains like conventional dairy farms, there is not a significant difference in the nutrients in the milk. Publications from the industry, such as the Dairy Council, say that there is no difference in safety between conventionally produced dairy and organic dairy, since milk is tested for pesticides, herbicides and hormones.

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul;

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