Consumers choose organic products for a variety of reasons, but some would argue that the taste of organic milk is not one of them. A 2008 study carried out by the University of Missouri asked one hundred volunteers to sample three kinds of milk: conventionally raised, pasture-fed and organic. To the great disappointment of organic farming advocates everywhere, the organic milk was overwhelmingly the least preferred of the three. Was this study an anomaly? Or are milk-lovers doomed to sacrifice flavor for ethics?
Factors Affecting the Taste of Organic Milk
All milk, whether from organically or conventionally raised cows, has variations in taste. In The Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products, authors Clarke et al outline a number of possible factors that influence milk flavor, including:
Conventionally raised cows are normally fed a standard diet known as a total mixed ration (TMR.) TMR contains all the nutrients necessary for health and milk production, such as grains, forages, vitamins, and supplementary proteins, in a known ratio. This standardized diet leads to a uniformity of flavor among conventionally raised dairy cows.
By contrast, pastured cows feed on wild plants in whatever proportion their appetites demand. If they happen upon a particularly lush patch of clover, the herd might gravitate toward that feed for as long as it is available. This is likely to benefit the milk nutritionally, as clover tends to increase beneficial fatty acid content in the milk, but may also add unfamiliar flavors.
In a 2007 study that compared the chemical analysis and consumer perception of milk from pastured and conventionally raised cattle, trained milk-tasters were able to detect distinctly grassy flavors in the pastured milk. While this is not necessarily a bad flavor, it is nevertheless an unfamiliar flavor that consumers accustomed to conventional dairy products will notice.
Anything dairy cows ingest while lactating has the potential to flavor milk, and that is not limited to diet alone. Inhaled substances can leave their mark on milk taste as well. Again, because conventionally raised cattle all live under similar conditions, their milk will take on similar, familiar tastes. Organically raised cows, who by definition must be pastured at least some of the time, will be exposed to a variety of inhaled substances, from the sweet aroma of wildflowers to pollution given off by nearby industries.
Stage of Lactation
Milk from cows nearing the end of their lactation period will have a stronger, almost pungent flavor compared to milk produced earlier in the cycle. This occurs less often with intensely-raised dairy cows, who are bred more frequently to maintain milk freshness. While USDA Standards do not dictate breeding frequency, some organic farmers may breed their cows less often out of concern for cow health and the need to avoid antibiotic use.
Lactation is a very individual process. Some cows, due to individual physiology, simply produce better tasting milk than others. Also, when a cow is in the early stages of mastitis, her milk may take on a rancid taste before a farmer notices outward symptoms.
When milk from large numbers animals is pooled into a single supply at dairy processing facilities, these individual differences are essentially nullified. Because organic farming is still in its infancy, organic herds tend to be smaller than conventionally raised cows and processing takes place on a smaller scale. If a single cow or group of cows in a small herd have off-tasting milk for some reason, the whole milk supply may be affected by the taste.
Choosing an Organic Milk
The important thing to remember when evaluating the taste of organic milk is that there is a wide degree of variance from brand to brand, and even from season to season. If you try one kind of organic milk and don't like the flavor, you are doing yourself and organic farmers a disservice if you assume that all organic milk tastes the same. Organic Milk Review offers impartial evaluations of the taste and quality of different brands of organic milk, and is a good starting point to find a milk you will enjoy. Try a few different brands before you reach a conclusion - you might be surprised!.