While milk consumption continues to fall in the U.S., sales of organic milk are on the rise. And now organic milk accounts for about 4 percent of total fluid milk consumption.
For years, organic producers have claimed their milk is nutritionally superior to regular milk. Specifically, they say that because their cows spend a lot more time out on pasture, munching on grasses and legumes rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the animals' milk is higher in these healthy fats, which are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
But the evidence for this has been scant, except for some small studies from Europe.
Now, a new study evaluating organic milk produced in the U.S. finds that organic milk has about 62 percent more omega-3s, compared to milk produced by cows on conventional dairy farms. Cows raised on conventional farms typically spend a lot more time in a barn or confined, and instead of grazing, they're fed a diet of animal feed that contains a lot of corn.
"We were surprised by the magnitude of the differences," lead author Charles Benbrook of Washington State University tells The Salt.
Benbrook and his colleague analyzed about 400 samples of organic and conventional milk over a period of about a year and a half. The samples were taken at processing facilities around the country.
The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, come at a time when we're being told to consume more omega-3 fatty acids. Most people hear this advice and think of fatty fish — which is, of course, an excellent source of the omega-3s DHA and EPA.
What's less well known is that plant-based foods, such as leafy greens and nuts, are rich in another omega-3 called ALA. Now, it's becoming clearer that organic milk is a good source of that, too.
Benbrook says that consuming ALA-rich milk is also a good way to change the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. According to the National Institutes of Health, the consensus is that, for good health, we need to be eating more omega-3s and less omega-6s.
Omega-6s are found in corn and sunflower oil, and in foods fried in these oils. While some experts don't see a problem with omega-6s, many say that the typical American diet already contains too many. And averaged over 12 months, the study found, organic milk contained 25 percent less omega-6 fatty acids than conventional milk.
So, here's the rub: if you want all of the omega-3s found in organic milk, are you better off drinking whole milk rather than skim?
Yes. That's because skimming off the fat also reduces the omega-3 content. For example, skim milk, which contains 1 percent milk fat, has about one-third the fat of whole milk. So you're left with a much lower level of omega-3s. Of course, you're also fewer calories, so it might be a hard choice for people who are watching their weight. If they choose whole milk, they may have to trim calories elsewhere.
And there seems to be a movement towards consuming whole milk. Sales of whole, organic milk are up 10 percent this year, making it the fastest-growing category of milk, according to a spokeswoman from Organic Valley. Skim sales, meanwhile, are down 7.0 percent, she says.
As I reported earlier this year, some studies have linked fattier milk to slimmer kids, despite the fact that pediatricians routinely recommend switching kids to low-fat dairy at the age of 2 to reduce their consumption of saturated fats. These fats, which are more abundant in whole milk than in reduced fat milk, are linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
As falling sales figures show, lots of Americans have simply taken milk out of their diets — due to lactose intolerance or other reasons. Some have replaced dairy milk with alternatives such as almond milk, which many doctors say is fine, since there are plenty of other sources of calcium.
But for people who are still milk drinkers, this study suggests that yes, there is a benefit in choosing organic in terms of boosting omega-3 intake.
One thing to note: Dairy farmers of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, a group which markets through the Organic Valley brand, helped fund the study. But the groups had no role in its design or analysis. The analysis was funded by the Measure to Manage program at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.
Hey there, befuddled aunts, uncles and family friends. Not sure what to get for all those nieces, nephews and offspring of other people? This year (for the first time!) we've included kids' titles in our year-end best books roundup. Pay a visit to NPR's Book Concierge to see what our staff and critics recommend for kids and teens in 2013.
Librarian Mara Alpert keeps a running list of "top picks" in the children's literature department at the Los Angeles Public Library. When we asked her to share her 2013 favorites, she gave us the stories she could "see a parent reading to a child over and over (and over and over)"; these are the books children will unwrap and then "read under the table at Christmas dinner," she says. The titles on Alpert's list will introduce kids to Japanese baseball, frog noises from around the world, dinosaurs of all different sizes, and even an alternative approach to "This Little Piggy." (Think about it: What are the toes on the other foot up to? Now you can find out.)
For the slightly older set, we turned to children's book author and blogger Lisa Yee. She gave us books about Albert Einstein, a superhero squirrel, a tween music superstar, and a determined pioneer girl. "There's a certain indescribable feeling that washes over me when I read something I love, and I felt that for all the books I selected," Yee says. "What these books have in common is that each is a small gem, the kind readers take to heart."
For the ever-enigmatic teenage crowd, we asked YA writer Alaya Dawn Johnson to help us out. She recommends a masterful mashup of Little Red Riding Hood, a hilarious story about what it's like to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and of course, one book starring vampires.
NPR staffers contributed, too: Monkey See host Linda Holmes recommends Eleanor & Park, a smart, sensitive YA novel about feeling loved and feeling lost. NPR's Backseat Book Club producer Justine Kenin test-drove titles with her own kids and says you can't go wrong with Aces Wild or The Apprentices. Emily Ecton, a Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! producer and children's book author, recommends Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great (which, if you ask me, is tied for best title on this list with Mr. Wuffles! a recommendation from Weekend All Things Considered staffer Becky Hersher).
So consult the Book Concierge to find a title that fits the kid on your list. I promise: a carefully selected book will long outlast the AA batteries in whatever electronic toy they're begging Santa to bring them this year.
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Mary Barra will become the new leader of General Motors in January, the company announced Tuesday. A longtime GM veteran, Barra is currently an executive vice president; her tenure as CEO will begin after current leader Dan Akerson retires on Jan. 15.
Barra, 51, works in the company's global product development unit. She will soon become the first woman to lead a major automaker, as The Detroit Free Press reports.
"With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today's GM," Barra said, in a news release from GM announcing the change. "I'm honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed."
GM says the pending change comes after its chairman and CEO, Akerson, 65, "pulled ahead his succession plan by several months after his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer."
Barra's title will not mirror Akerson's, GM says, because the company is splitting the roles of chairman and CEO. Board member Tim Solso, a former CEO of Cummins, will become the new chairman of the corporation's board.
The change comes as GM is "closing the chapter on government ownership," the company says.
On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it had sold its last remaining shares in the company. In 2009, the government took on a stake of nearly 61 percent of GM's value as part of a federal bailout of several large U.S. carmakers.
The move is credited with saving thousands of jobs — but as Scott reported yesterday for The Two-Way, it also meant that U.S. taxpayers lost $10.7 billion.
Avery Stackhouse, age 7, of Lafayette, Calif., says he wishes he had more time for phys ed.
"We just have it one day a week — on Monday." There's always lunch and recess, he says. "We play a couple of games, like football and soccer," he tells Shots.
But at Happy Valley Elementary, where he goes to school, recess last only 15 minutes and lunch is 45. Between eating and mingling, he says, "there's only a few minutes left where we play games and all that."
Fifty-six percent of parents say their elementary school kids are getting just one or two days of physical education a week, according to a poll NPR conducted in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Fewer than 1 in 5 parents with children in kindergarten through fifth grade said their kids were getting physical education daily.
Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that K-5 students get at least 150 minutes a week. Physical activity has a lot of benefits, from reducing obesity to helping kids do better academically.
Louisiana State University's Russ Carson, an exercise researcher, tells Shots the poll results don't surprise him. "This has been going on for years, unfortunately," he says. School administrators can only fit so many things into a day, and often, he says, "testing and other aspects of education take precedence over physical education."
More and more, Carson says parents and educators are starting to "think beyond the gym walls," and come up with ways to fit in exercise before or after school. One idea is to have teachers integrate physical activity into match and reading lessons.
At Wildwood Elementary, a private school in Amherst, Mass., kids are required to take a morning walk between the time buses drop them off and classes start.
Rebecca Spencer, whose 5- and 7-year-old daughters attend Wildwood, says it's a good way for the kids to fit in some more exercise. "They only get [physical education] once a week, and it's for an hour. So it's very brief," Spencer tells Shots.
The school has also organized what it calls a jog-a-thon for the older kids. Students can run laps around the playground to earn points, and the school keeps track of all their miles to see how far they've run collectively run.
Spencer's older daughter also swims after school.
And these school-wide initiatives are a good way to get every student to exercise, Spencer says. "Some people think of recess as a time for physical activity," she says. "But there's actually nothing to make sure these kids are being physical during that time." Having some structured P.E. classes at school is important, she says.
Spencer, a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts, says she's well aware of the physical and cognitive benefits that kids get from being active. "The physical education is giving them some of the motor skills that they need," she says. But, she also says she understands that the school doesn't necessarily have the resources to provide more P.E. classes.
"Exercise — any exercise — is great for brain development," she says. "Most of the studies that have been done that show how the brain develops through exercise actually don't use any special form of exercise," she says. "They typically use just treadmill walking."
That seems to indicate that even a even simple walk around a track can do kids a lot of good.