Organic milk has a longer shelf life than regular milk. It is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and comes from drug-free, open pasture cows. Some consumers believe that for health reasons alone, it's worth paying extra for organic milk. There are certainly some advantages to organic milk, but it is up to you if they are worth it to pay a premium.
A Longer Shelf Life
One big advantage of organic milk has over regular milk is its shelf life. Most brands of organic milk are sterilized at very high temperatures (around 280 F), so it can keep for up to two months. Because regular pasteurized milk is heated to only 165 F or lower, it doesn't have the same long shelf life. On the other hand, high-temperature sterilization can make milk sweeter. This is something that may be a plus or minus, depending on your taste preferences.
If you're concerned about milk going bad in your refrigerator, organic milk might actually save you money because it will last much longer. Alternatively, you can buy non-organic milk that has been sterilized at high temperatures and will last longer. One example is the European product Parmalat, which sits on grocery shelves rather than in the dairy case.
While ultra-high-temperature processing can have a negative impact on some nutrients, researchers find that organic milk does have a high level of omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 can be found in many foods and taken as a supplement. Studies show that Omega-3 can reduce cardiovascular disease, improve neurological development and function, and strengthens immune function.
Two products, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, also known as BGH, recombinant bovine somatotropin or rBST) and antibiotics, are said to be found in regular milk but not in organic milk. Organic milk comes from cows that have never been given these drugs, which means that organic milk is guaranteed to be free of any residue.
On the other hand, neither growth hormones nor antibiotics are as popular as they were (in part because consumers complained), so many regular dairies avoid these drugs. Much regular milk packaging will include claims on the label stating the milk does not contain antibiotics or growth hormones. In addition, regular milk is tested to be sure there is little or no drug residue in products sent to the market.
If you have any concerns about possible residue from drug use, it certainly makes sense to buy organic. Alternatively, you can do a little research into the dairies that sell their regular milk products in your area. If it turns out that they don't use the drugs, you may be able to save a little money.
Treatment of Cattle
In 2010, the USDA closed a loophole in their organic regulations, so all organic dairy cattle must spend much of the year grazing in open pastures, as opposed to feedlots or indoor feeding pens. While this may seem more natural and healthy, there is some controversy over whether it makes the milk healthier. Advocates claim that milk from cows that graze in pastures contains more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), which is a healthy fat that some research shows might have health benefits. There is not any significant body of scientific evidence supporting the nutritional superiority of organic milk.
There's little argument that organic farming and dairy practices are better for the environment, if only because of their reduced use of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and other synthetic chemical compounds. When these benefits and the longer shelf life of organic milk are considered, it's easy to see why organic milk can be a good buy.
Benbrook CM, Butler G, Latif MA, Leifert C, Davis DR. Organic production enhances milk nutritional quality by shifting fatty acid composition: a United States-wide, 18-month study. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(12):e82429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082429
Zivkovic AM, Telis N, German JB, Hammock BD. Dietary omega-3 fatty acids aid in the modulation of inflammation and metabolic health. Calif Agric (Berkeley). 2011;65(3):106-111. doi:10.3733/ca.v065n03p106
US Federal Register. National organic program; access to pasture (livestock). February 17, 2010.