There many be one more reason to choose organic: nutrition. In the largest study of its kind, an international team of experts led by Newcastle University, UK, has shown that both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally-produced products.
Analyzing data from around the world, the team reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat and found clear differences between organic and conventional milk and meat, especially in terms of fatty acid composition, and the concentrations of certain essential minerals and antioxidants.
The research team team say the data show a switch to organic meat and milk would go some way towards increasing our intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function. North American diets are considered too low in these fatty acids.
A switch from conventional to organic would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat.
Other positive changes in fat profiles included lower levels of myristic and palmitic acid (two types of saturated fat) in organic meat and a lower omega-3/omega-6 ratio in organic milk. In organic milk, higher levels of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin E and carotenoids and 40% more CLA, a fatty acid though to help keep body fat low, were also observed.
Key findings: nutritional differences between organic and conventional milk and meat
- both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products (Keep in mind, omega-3 fats are found in the fat content of meat and milk, not thoughout the food.)
- organic meat had slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats (myristic and palmitic acid) that are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- organic milk contains 40% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
- organic milk contains slightly higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids
- conventional milk contained 74% more of the essential mineral iodine and slightly more selenium
The study showed that the more desirable fat profiles in organic milk were closely linked to outdoor grazing and low concentrate feeding in dairy diets, as prescribed by organic farming standards.
The two new systematic literature reviews also describe recently published results from several mother and child cohort studies linking organic milk and dairy product consumption to a reduced risk of certain health problems, including eczema in babies.
Earlier research suggests organic crops higher in certain antioxidants
The work builds on a previous study by the team - involving experts from the UK, US, France, Italy, Switzerland, Norway and Poland - investigating the composition of organic and conventionally-grown crops.
This previous study showed that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and contained less of the toxic metal cadmium.
"We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food. Taken together, the three studies on crops, meat and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids," said the researcher.
There needs to be substantially more, well designed studies before we can accurately estimate composition differences in meat from different farm animals and for many nutritionally important compounds (vitamins, minerals, toxic metal and pesticide residues), as there is currently too little data to make comparisons.
The authors highlight that only a small number of studies have been carried out comparing organic and non-organic meat, and that even significant results may still carry a high level of uncertainty.
Health benefits likely not relevant
Experts say, however, the use of percentage increases to describe nutritional differences can have the effect of implying a greater change than is nutritonally relevant. The nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods should be evaluted in the context of the whole diet.
For instance, the average western diet provides about 2.2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day. Switching from conventional to organic milk would increase omega-3 intake to 33 milligrams per day - an increase of 1.5% in the total diet. Some experts say such small changes are unlikely to deliver health benefits.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.