Your Organic Milk Might Contain Algae and Fish Oil

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Millions and millions of gallons of organic milk contain industrial-brewed ingredients to beef up nutritional values.

When you buy a carton of organic milk, chances are you think you’re getting a carton of pure organic milk. And if you’re splurging on organic milk with DHA Omega-3 fatty acids to support brain health – and who doesn't want their brain health supported? – chances are you think that those healthy bits are coming courtesy of healthy grass-fed cows. But as Peter Whoriskey points out in the Washington Post, you might be wrong on both accounts – much of the nation's organic milk can thank algal oil (and fish oil) for its brain-boosting boasts.

Whoriskey describes a setting in a South Carolina factory that sounds a tad less charming than Horizon’s cartoon cow leaping across the planet's grassy fields might suggest. He writes:

Inside a South Carolina factory, in industrial vats that stand five stories high, batches of algae are carefully tended, kept warm and fed corn syrup. There the algae, known as schizochytrium, multiply quickly. The payoff, which comes after processing, is a substance that resembles corn oil. It tastes faintly fishy.

The oil is added to milk, in this case Horizon’s DHA Omega-3 version, allowing the company to advertise its added benefits and attach a higher price tag. Consumers bought more than 26 million gallons of Horizon’s algae-goop milk last year, according to the company; that accounts for 14 percent of all organic milk gallons sold.

(Meanwhile, on a related note, Costco's Kirkland organic milk gets its Omega-3 boost from "refined fish oil." Organic Valley says of their Omega-3 option, "Our pasture-raised milk naturally contains higher levels of these important nutrients. We further enrich that organic goodness with an extra dose of omega-3s." Meaning: Refined Fish Oil (Sardine, Anchovy), Fish Gelatin (Tilapia).)

For a lot of people, this all may be perfectly fine. Rather than taking an omega-3 supplement, they might prefer to eat it with their morning cereal. And algal oil is vegetarian and a sustainable option with a lot of potential. Yet for anyone with allergies it could obviously be detrimental – and the problem is that it all leads to a bigger question: Can you really call something “organic” when it includes factory-brewed ingredients?

“We do not think that [the oil] belongs in organic foods,” Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports, told The Post. “When an organic milk carton says it has higher levels of beneficial nutrients, like omega-3 fats, consumers want that to be the result of good farming practices...not from additives made in a factory.”

Whoriskey says that the USDA initially misread federal regulations in 2007, and then five years after the algal oil milk was launched, quietly acknowledged that some federal regulations had been incorrectly interpreted. “The USDA then maintained the status quo,” he writes, “allowing the use of algal oil, among other things – in order not to ‘disrupt’ the market.”

And indeed, the market is thriving. “Millions of people choose our Horizon Organic milk with DHA Omega-3 for the added benefits DHA Omega-3s are thought to deliver,” Horizon says, also noting that the additive may improve heart, brain and eye health.

But consumers purchasing organic milk are potentially paying higher prices without clearly understanding the implications, at least if they are expecting their organic products to be free of “laboratory-inspired razzle-dazzle,” as Whoriskey puts it.

“Additives just don’t have any place in organics at all,” says Barry Flamm, former chair of the National Organic Standards Board. “You might say additives should be allowed for health reasons, but I never saw an additive that you couldn’t get in real foods.”

Fortifying the food supply is nothing new; vitamin D added to milk virtually did away with rickets, niacin in bread and iodine in salt also come to mind. But the USDA's mistake in allowing supplements like algal oil in organic products – and deciding to let that mistake stand indefinitely – may conflict with consumer's expectations of what they are really purchasing.

If you want a dose of omega-3 with your coffee, great. But if you want a pure, single-ingredient, 100 percent organic product, step away from the brain-boosting wonder milk.