Differences between organic and conventional toddler milk

11 minute read

Organically manufactured dairy products, infant formula and toddler milk differ compositionally from conventional products.

For healthcare Professional use only.

There are compositional differences between organically manufactured dairy products, toddler milk and conventionally manufactured products.

Global sales of all organic food have recently been reported as having reached 97 billion Euros in 20181.  The organic fresh produce market is therefore one of the fastest growing such markets in world agriculture2.

Numerous reasons are cited in the contemporary literature to account for this burgeoning consumption of organic foods, including the perceived potential harmful effect of what is usually termed chemically grown food, on both the environment and human health3-6.  Some of this reasoning is based on reported community and consumer beliefs that organic foods are more environmentally friendly7 and healthier8 than chemically grown foods.

A limited number of studies have evaluated potential differences in the composition of conventional dairy products and organic dairy products.  The vast majority of such studies have focussed on milk and potential differences in fat composition between such milks.  There are clear and obvious reasons for this focus.

Milk and other dairy products have long been known to be rich in saturated fatty acids (SFA) and for many years both these and trans fatty acids (TFA) have been linked in many reports and recommendations to a greater risk of coronary heart disease 9,10

However, more recent publications have suggested that in fact that milk fat may be beneficial when related to mortality, ischemic heart disease, stroke and diabetes11 as well as risk of cardiovascular disease12 and colorectal cancer13.

Also, there is a burgeoning literature that suggests that n-3 and 18:2 conjugated linoleic acid fatty acids have important health benefits18-21 and that the ratio of n-3 to n-6 fatty acids in the diet is equally as important as the patterns of consumption of total fat, monounsaturated fat and saturated fat 18,19.

Ellis and colleagues20 focussed on potential differences in fatty acid composition between organic and conventional milk.  The organic milk had a higher proportion of PUFA to monounsaturated acids and of n-3 fatty acids than the conventional milk.  The organic milk also had a lower n-6:n-3 fatty acid ratio compared to conventional milk.  Ellis and co-workers referenced previous work that had linked n-3 fatty acids to improved neurological function, and protection against coronary heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Palupi et al, undertook a meta-analysis in 2012 of previously published papers that considered differences in nutritional quality between organic and conventional dairy products21.

The meta-analysis considered articles published between March 2008 and April 2011. 

Information was extracted from 13 studies on a number of key nutrients.  These included, fat content, protein content, and some vitamins (alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene).  

Palupi and colleagues concluded that there were significantly higher amounts of protein, alpha-linolenic acid, conjugated linoleic acid 9, vaccenic acid, eicosapentanoic acid and docosapentanoic acid in the organic dairy products when compared to the conventional dairy products. These findings, coupled with the higher ratio of n-3 to n-6 and a difference in the delta 9-desaturase index, led the authors to suggest that the organic dairy product may have a premium nutritional quality.

More recently, the potential use of nuclear magnetic resonance based metabolomics to evaluate the lipid fractions of organic and conventional milk has been described22.  The underlying hypothesis of this work was that as milk fatty acid profiles are very sensitive to changes in the diet of animals, there may be differences in fatty acid profiles between organic and conventional milk which may offer potential health benefits to consumers.  It has been long known that about 50% of bovine milk fat is derived from plasma lipids of which close to 90% are of dietary origin23.

A publication by Corbu and colleagues24 contended that their work was the first to use magnetic resonance based metabolomics in organic toddler milk.  In this study a total of 15 commercial milk samples were obtained of which 10 were labelled as being suitable from birth to 1 year and 5 being described as being suitable for infants aged 6-12 months.  Of these 15 samples, 6 were produced from organic materials.  Corbu and co-workers concluded that within the comparison between organic and conventionally produced formulas, the only metabolite that had significantly different concentrations was methionine, which was higher (p=0.001) in the organic formula.

A second recent publication using nuclear magnetic resonance based metabolomics25 in 2020, acknowledged that little is known about the differences in nutritional profile of formula produced using organic milk when compared with formula made using conventionally produced milk.  In this study 5 different brands of both infant formula and toddler milk available in Italy were assessed.  Of these 5 brands 2 were labelled as organic. 

The primary conclusion of Meoni and colleagues related to the promising nature of their NMR based metabolomics approach to assessing the composition of milk from various sources.

There are few data in the literature that relate to the possible health benefits of consuming organically produced food per se, or organically produced dairy foods or toddler milks.  Indeed, in 2008, Kummeling and co-workers described their publication26 as “the first prospective study to evaluate the role of organic food consumption on human health”.  Specifically, in this study the relationship between early life consumption of organic food and atopic manifestations in the first 2 years of life was investigated in a large birth cohort.  

Kummeling et al reported there was no association between the consumption of organic meat, fruit, vegetables or eggs, or the proportion of organic products within the total diet and the development of eczema, wheeze or atopic sensitisation.  However, they did find that consumption of organic dairy products was associated with lower eczema risk (OR 0·64 (95 % CI 0·44, 0·93)) in those children whose diet had been classified as strictly organic.  They suggested that n-3 long-chain PUFA may have anti-inflammatory properties and can contribute to the maintenance of the skin barrier.  

There is strong evidence from a limited number of studies, to show that there are differences in composition between conventional dairy (mainly milk) products and organic dairy products 20,21,22,27-29.

There is some evidence from a very limited number of publications 24,35 that there is translation of the differences above into differences in toddler milk composition manufactured using organic milk.

There are few data in the literature that relate to the possible health benefits of consuming organically produced dairy foods, per se, 26 and no data/evidence could be found that supported possible health benefits of consuming organically produced toddler milks when compared to conventionally produced such formula and/or milks. There is a need to complete more studies that assess possible differences in composition between organically produced toddler milks and conventionally manufactured such products.  Assuming such studies confirm and strengthen our knowledge of compositional differences between organically produced toddler milks and conventionally made products, hypotheses could be generated that relate these differences to potential health outcomes that might be seen in groups of infants and young children. 

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The information provided on this article is intended for use by healthcare professionals only. It is a condition of use of this site that you are a healthcare professional within the meaning of the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas (MAIF) Agreement or the Therapeutic Goods Act. By accessing and using this website you acknowledge and declare that you are a registered healthcare professional. The content on this site is intended for general information and educational purposes only.

Sponsored by the Bellamy’s Organic Institute bellamysorganicinstitute.com.au

Written by: Professor Peter SW Davies
Honorary Professor of Childhood Nutrition
Child Health Research Centre
Centre for Children’s Health Research University of Queensland


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