Is organic milk really good for you? The jury's still out
Organically produced milk is now a common sight on Hong Kong supermarket shelves, but scientists are divided over its benefits
As recently as a few years ago, finding organic milk in Hong Kong took some effort. These days, not only is it a fixture on supermarket shelves, you even have a choice of at least five brands.
In China, the organic raw milk supply is forecast to grow an average of 53.5 per cent year-on-year between 2013 and 2018, from 0.174 million tonnes to 1.48 million tonnes, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan. This parallels the projected growth of China's organic-food market, estimated to increase from 32.7 billion yuan (US$5.3 billion) retail market value in 2013 to 144.6 billion yuan in 2018.
Perhaps the surest sign that organic milk has become big business in this region: since July of last year, Shengmu - China's largest organic dairy company and the only one that meets EU organic standards - has been listed on the main board of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
This growth in demand stems from rising disposable income, increasing health awareness among consumers, and the growing availability of organic food with the development of distribution channels, says the Frost & Sullivan report.
But is organic milk really better for us, or are people blinded by the organic description? A recent study by the University of Reading in the UK suggests organic milk is less healthy than regular milk in terms of iodine content. Compared with conventionally produced milk, the study found that organic milk contains around a third less iodine, which is essential for a strong metabolism.
Iodine is also known to be essential for healthy fetal brain development, especially in the early stages of pregnancy.
It would seem, however, that most are taking those study results with a grain of salt.
Registered dietitian Winsy Leung observes that more people are opting for organic products such as milk and vegetables for safety reasons. But while she believes it is beneficial to use organic milk, "if you're not able to afford it, you won't jeopardise your nutrition".
Online grocery South Stream Seafoods started selling organic milk five years ago. Its director, Bradley White, says demand for organic milk is growing steadily at a "modest pace".
"People are increasingly concerned about the origin of their food, especially when it comes to feeding their children," says Ben Harris, director of Daioni, a Welsh organic dairy brand that debuted in Hong Kong supermarkets in June. "Health scares have added to that concern. Organic milk, with the emphasis on the quality of production and traceability of the product, is rightly considered to be a healthy product."
Organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of heart-healthy fatty acids compared to conventional milk, according to a study published in December 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE. Researchers, led by a Washington State University scientist, tested nearly 400 samples of organic and conventional milk in the US over an 18-month period.
Conventional milk had an average omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 5.8 to 1, more than twice that of organic milk's ratio of 2.3 to 1. The consumption of more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids is a well-known risk factor for a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, excessive inflammation, and autoimmune diseases. The higher the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, the greater the associated health risks.
The researchers said the far healthier ratio of fatty acids in organic milk is brought about by a greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on organic dairy farms.
Organic milk is also higher in antioxidants, vitamins (especially A, C and E) and minerals (including calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium), according to Harris' father, Laurence, founder of Daioni and a dairy farmer for more than 40 years. Organic milk is also free from chemical contamination: pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, synthetic growth or breeding hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, pollution and dangerous waste.
A study review published in the Journal of Dairy Science in January this year further explains the factors that make the difference in the nutrition content of milk: the cows' diet and breed.
"The differences in milk composition observed are actually due to the different diets of the cows (example: pasture versus concentrate feeding) rather than organic versus conventional farming systems," according to the review's lead investigator Don Otter, senior scientist at AgResearch Grasslands Research Centre in New Zealand.
Shengmu organic milk, founded in 2009, has about 20 organic dairy farms, all located in the Ulan Buh desert of Inner Mongolia. It's the only vertically integrated organic dairy company in China, what it calls "grass-to-glass".
Daioni organic milk comes from the Harris family's Ffosyficer farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales, that has over 1,200 hectares of fertile pasture certified organic by the UK Soil Association. Laurence Harris converted the farm to organic production in 1999 due to increasing concerns about the effect that intensive agricultural practices have on human health, the environment and the well-being of his cows.
Laurence explains that organic dairy farming is different from conventional dairy farming in four aspects: animal welfare (use of homeopathy instead of antibiotics to treat the cows), stocking density (guidelines on cubicle size, number of cows in each and cows per hectare of pasture), diet (only roughage rather than by-products of the food industry) and land management (compost and farmyard manure as fertilisers, instead of artificial fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides).
"Rising awareness of organic milk production and an increase in education goes hand in hand with heightened sales, which are increasing year on year," Laurence says.
We try five organic milks
The initial plan was to taste test five different brands of organic milk, but we realised after sampling that they were all very similar - rich, creamy and delicious. However, the UHT (ultra-high temperature) varieties have a slightly sweeter flavour. This is not surprising as the heating processing they go through caramelises some of the sugars in the milk. Compared to conventional milk, organic milk tastes slightly less sweet. It also has a thicker consistency - even the low-fat, such as Clover one per cent - which tend to be watery with conventional varieties. Overall, nutrition and food safety - rather than flavour, which is difficult to differentiate - are the best reasons to choose organic.
Avalon Valley Pride organic homogenised milk
HK$68 for 1 litre, City'super
Origin: British Columbia, Canada
Certified by: Canada Organic
Clover Organic Farms low fat milk beverage
HK$61.50 for 946ml, Oliver's
Origin: California, US
Certified by: USDA Organic
True Organic full cream milk (UHT)
HK$36 for 1 litre, Oliver's
Origin: farm co-ops all over Australia
Certified by: National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia
Organic Valley whole milk beverage (UHT)
HK$24 for 236ml, City'super
Origin: farm co-ops all over the US
Certified by: USDA Organic
Daioni organic cows milk (UHT)
HK$35 for 1 litre, City'super
Origin: Pembrokeshire, Wales
Certified by: Soil Association Organic, Agriculture Biologique