Is organic milk safe to drink in pregnancy?

What's the story behind new research that suggests drinking organic or UHT milk in pregnancy could affect the brain development of your unborn baby?

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In a nutshell

Organic and UHT milk are safe to drink during pregnancy, but you’ll need to make sure you increase your iodine intake in your diet.

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The expert view

The media is reporting that a new study (April 2015) suggests that pregnant women who drink organic milk might be putting the brain development of their unborn babies at risk. This is because organic milk contains a third less iodine than regular milk – and the same is true for UHT processed long-life milk.

Iodine is important for the healthy brain development of your baby, especially in the early stages of pregnancy, and studies have shown that iodine deficiencies can cause intellectual disability and brain damage.

Writers of the new study say that because milk is the primary source of iodine in the UK diet, this iodine shortfall in organic or UHT milk could have serious health implications.

“People are increasingly buying organic and UHT milk for perceived health benefits or convenience,” explains Prof Ian Givens from the University of Reading. “But our research shows that this trend could have serious implications for public health. Iodine deficiency ought to be a health problem from the past. But unless this situation is carefully monitored, we risk sleepwalking into a new health crisis in the 21st century.”

Prof Givens is keen to stress that drinking organic and UHT milk is not bad for you, but you need to adjust your diet. “Drinking all types of milk has numerous health benefits. But to get the same amount of iodine as in a pint of conventional pasteurised milk, you would need to drink around an extra half-pint of organic or UHT milk.”

So should you stop drinking organic milk in pregnancy?

Drinking organic milk doesn’t automatically mean you will be lower in iodine than other pregnant women. It just means you may be getting less iodine that you otherwise would if you drank non-organic milk. So as long as you’re getting enough. Pregnant women need 220mcg (0.22mg) a day, more than the normal adult recommendation of 140mcg (0.14mg). But there’s no need to switch to normal milk unless you’re worried you’re not getting enough iodine in your diet.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell how much 220mcg is, but look at the list of ingredients on food packaging to help you. Plus, pregnancy vitamin supplements often contain iodine – Pregnacare contains 140mcg per daily pill. 

“The study has no measures of iodine status in an individual, so we cannot conclude that those who consume organic milk have a lower iodine status, as that depends on the quantity of organic milk consumed and intake of other iodine-rich foods (such as fish),” Dr Sarah Bath, MRC Population Health Scientist Fellow, University of Surrey, said.

So how else can you get more iodine in your diet?

Natural sources of iodine include: eggs, prawns, fish such as cod and tuna, and other dairy products including yoghurt and cheese and products made from grains such as breads and cereals.

So don’t worry about switching your milk type, but just be aware of where the iodine in your diet comes from and make sure you’re getting enough.

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