Is Grass-Fed Milk Actually Healthier?

Grass-fed milk is a rapidly growing category with a fresh-from-the-farm name that sounds worthy of superfood status. But is it, really?

Hands Pick Up Gallon of Milk
Photo: Sergey Ryzhov/Shutterstock

When you're trying to buy the healthiest beverage for your family, the dairy aisle can be a daunting place. From nonfat to full fat, conventional to organic, almond to soy, lactose-free to A2, there's a milk (or plant-based "milk") to match every appetite and attitude. Among them is grass-fed milk, a rapidly growing category with a fresh-from-the-farm name that sounds worthy of superfood status.

According to research, it is a slightly healthier option that's also better for the environment. However, grass-fed milk tends to be quite a bit more expensive than conventional milk. So, many parents wonder if the added nutritional value is worth the extra cost. Learn more about grass-fed milk to help you decide if it's the right dairy beverage for your family.

Do Grass-Fed Cows Make Healthier Milk?

It makes sense that grass-fed milk would be an easy sell to parents and other health-conscious folks. These cows consume a diet of grass rather than grain. "Many people perceive that grass-fed cows are healthier in how they are treated and what they eat and so therefore, their milk should be healthier," says Tanya Altmann, M.D., a Southern California-based pediatrician.

It's true that milk from grass-fed cows contains more of certain important nutrients than milk from cows fed grain. A 2018 study from the journal Food Science & Nutrition found it was higher in omega-3 fatty acids, the essential fatty acids important for brain and eye health that our bodies can't make, than other kinds of milk. Research also shows that it's also lower in omega-6 fatty acids, which are linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

"Omega-3s are especially important for growing children, as their intake in infancy and childhood could potentially impact their long-term development," says Diana K. Rice, R.D., CLEC, mom of two and the founder of Tiny Seed Family Nutrition.

owner of The Baby Steps Dietitian and mom of two girls ages 3 and 1. But here's the rub: The amount of omega-3s in grass-fed milk, while more than double the amount in conventional milk, is just not that much. "A 100-gram serving of salmon, for example, has 2.25 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, whereas a 100-gram serving of grass-fed milk has just 0.05 grams," says Rice.

Grass-fed milk is also higher in nutrients like vitamin E, iron, and conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that may play a role in preventing heart disease and obesity. But, like omega-3s, it's not in amounts that are likely to make a huge dent in your dietary needs (or the needs of your kiddos).

As for the nutrients like calcium, protein, potassium, and vitamin D milk is best known for? You'll find roughly the same mix in all milk whether it's grass-fed, organic, or conventional. "Ultimately, each type of milk packs the same nutrient punch," says Dr. Altmann. However, drinking grass-fed milk day after day is slightly healthier and those benefits may add up over time.

Grass-Fed Milk vs. Conventional Milk

The 2018 study found that 100 grams of conventional milk had around 0.02 grams of omega-3s while the same size serving of grass-fed milk had around 0.05 grams (for reference, an adult woman needs around 1.1 grams per day while a baby needs 0.5 grams). "An extra bite of fish would more than make up for it," says Rice.

So while you won't see a huge difference in omega-3 fatty acid content between grass-fed milk and conventional milk, you will see a major difference in the cost. Grass-fed milk comes in at around 3 to 4 times more costly than conventional milk per ounce.

However, research does show that the environmental impact of grass-fed milk is less than that of conventional milk. Grazing produces less greenhouse gas than feeding cows grain in fed lots.

Grass-Fed Milk vs. Organic Milk

Despite the bucolic images on some organic dairy packaging, an organic label does not mean that the cows that produced your milk munched exclusively on grass. The law requires them to spend a minimum of 120 days of the year grazing for at least 30% of their intake, so they may also be fed organic grain throughout the year.

Thanks to that access to grass, however, the nutrient values in organic milk tend to be a little higher than those in conventional milk. Grass-fed milk will still give you the most omega-3s per serving, but the level is still not high enough to make a huge difference in your diet. As for cost, organic and grass-fed are more comparable, with organic saving you around a penny per ounce compared with grass-fed.

If You Choose Grass-Fed

If you do decide to stock your fridge with grass-fed milk, choose full fat. The reason: Most of the nutritional advantages of grass-fed milk, however small, are found in the fat portion of the milk. Reduced or nonfat milk would, by definition, remove many of those nutrients.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends full-fat dairy for children between the ages of 1 and 2 because they need the extra calories for growth and fats for brain development. If your family prefers reduced-fat milk, then you may want to rethink the extra cost of grass-fed products.

Popular Grass-Fed Milk Brands

Brands like Maple Hill Creamery, Horizon Organic, and Organic Valley sell grass-fed milk around the country. Smaller, regional brands may also be available at your local stores. Since the government doesn't currently regulate what "grass-fed" means, there are several independent third-party certifications that you can look for to increase the chances you're getting a reliably grass-heavy product: American Grassfed Association, Certified Grassfed by AGW, PCO Certified 100% Grassfed, and NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grassfed are all good options.

Where to Buy Grass-Fed Milk

Local grocery stores, as well as big stores like Target and Walmart, now carry national brands of grass-fed milk. Smaller stores and farmer's markets may be good places to find local grass-fed milk products.

The Bottom Line

Grass-fed milk does have some advantages over conventional milk. It is higher in some key nutrients and lower in some less healthy compounds. Often, it is better for the environment, too. However, conventional milk also contains the nutrients your toddler needs, at a much lower cost. If the price is not an issue for your family, then choosing grass-fed milk may make sense. But know that conventional milk is also a healthy, cost-effective choice.

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