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Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage-based rations, with nutrition modeling of diet outcomes

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Chuck Benbrook, Professor Carlo Leifert, Gillian Butler, Dr Marcin Baranski



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2018 The Authors. Food Science & Nutrition published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Consumer demand for milk and meat from grass-fed cattle is growing, driven mostly by perceived health benefits and concerns about animal welfare. In a U. S.-wide study of 1,163 milk samples collected over 3 years, we quantified the fatty acid profile in milk from cows fed a nearly 100% forage-based diet (grassmilk) and compared it to profiles from a similar nationwide study of milk from cows under conventional and organic management. We also explored how much the observed differences might help reverse the large changes in fatty acid intakes that have occurred in the United States over the last century. Key features of the fatty acid profile of milk fat include its omega-6/omega-3 ratio (lower is desirable), and amounts of total omega-3, conjugated linoleic acid, and long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. For each, we find that grassmilk is markedly different than both organic and conventional milk. The omega-6/omega-3 ratios were, respectively, 0.95, 2.28, and 5.77 in grassmilk, organic, and conventional milk; total omega-3 levels were 0.049, 0.032, and 0.020 g/100 g milk; total conjugated linoleic acid levels were 0.043, 0.023, and 0.019 g/100 g milk; and eicosapentaenoic acid levels were 0.0036, 0.0033, and 0.0025 g/100 g milk. Because of often high per-capita dairy consumption relative to most other sources of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, these differences in grassmilk can help restore a historical balance of fatty acids and potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases. Although oily fish have superior concentrations of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, most fish have low levels of α-linolenic acid (the major omega-3), and an omega-6/omega-3 ratio near 7. Moreover, fish is not consumed regularly, or at all, by ~70% of the U. S. population.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Benbrook CM, Davis DR, Heins BJ, Latif MA, Leifert C, Peterman L, Butler G, Faergeman O, Abel-Caines S, Baranski M

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Food Science and Nutrition

Year: 2018

Volume: 6

Issue: 3

Pages: 681-700

Print publication date: 01/05/2018

Online publication date: 28/02/2018

Acceptance date: 17/01/2018

Date deposited: 12/06/2018

ISSN (electronic): 2048-7177

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Ltd


DOI: 10.1002/fsn3.610


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