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Millions of Cartons of ‘Organic’ Milk Actually Contain Algae

Photograph by Twenty20

If you’re already confused about all the milk options available for your family, things are about to get even more confusing. The Washington Post reports there are millions of cartons of “organic” milk that might not live up to the label.

Since 2007, Horizon, one of the largest suppliers of organic milk, has added oil that has been brewed in industrial vats of algae, specifically known as Schizochytrium, and markets it as nutritional enhancement. Other companies like Costco’s Kirkland brand add “refined fish oil” to their organic milk for similar reasons. Both algal oil and fish oil are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and allow companies to boost nutritional claims, though recent studies show claims of Omega-3 benefits are kind of fuzzy.

Just because a food product has additives or supplements doesn’t necessarily make it bad or unhealthy. Algal oil is vegetarian, sustainable and does provide Omega-3s for those who want the supplement. What people mainly take issue with is the labeling, not only because of the problem it can pose to those with food allergies, but also because it seems misleading.

People have been loving the generally more expensive Horizon milk supplemented with DHA (a type of Omega-3) without knowing what’s really in it. In the past year, consumers bought at least 26 million gallons of it, bringing in $250 million in retail sales.

“We do not think that (the oil) belongs in organic foods,” Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst, at Consumer Reports, tells the Washington 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.”

Parents who choose to buy organic milk may do so because of the promise to be free of added antibiotics, pesticides and synthetic growth hormones, or maybe because of good farming practices and animal welfare expectations. But in reality, it’s hard to know if what you’re getting is truly organic, and the seal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safer, more nutritious, or more humane than conventionally produced milk. USDA regulations on organic milk are complicated and can be broadly-interpreted, so whether or not milk supplemented with factory-brewed algal oil can really be considered “organic” is still up in the air.

But at least now when you grab a carton of “organic” milk, you’ll know something’s a little fishy.

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