Organic vs Conventional Milk and Meat: Which Is Better?

Health “fanatics” have been saying it for years: organic food often provides far more nutritional benefits than its conventional counterparts.

Research continues to back up this claim, including a new study – one of the largest on the subject to date.

An international team of experts led by Newcastle University in the 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.

Their findings were published in the British Journal of Nutrition yesterday.

The team says the data shows that a switch to organic meat and milk would help us increase our intake of nutritionally important fatty acids.

Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University, explains:

Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function.

Western European diets are recognized as being too low in these fatty acids and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends we should double our intake.

But getting enough in our diet is difficult. Our study suggests that switching to organic would go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients.

For the systematic literature review, researchers analyzed data from around the world and found that organic milk and meat have more desirable fat profiles than conventional milk and meat.

They found that making a switch from conventional to organic would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat. For example, half a liter of organic full fat milk (or equivalent fat intakes from other dairy products like butter and cheese) provides an estimated 16% (39 mg) of the recommended daily intake of very long-chain omega-3, while conventional milk provides 11% (25 mg).

Other positive changes in fat profiles included lower levels of two saturated fats (myristic and palmitic acid) in organic meat and a lower omega-3/omega-6 ratio in organic milk. Higher levels of fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin E and carotenoids and 40% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in organic milk were also observed.

The study also 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 new 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 diseases. This included reduced risks of eczema in babies.

Newcastle University’s Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the studies, said:

People choose organic milk and meat for three main reasons: improved animal welfare, the positive impacts of organic farming on the environment, and the perceived health benefits. But much less is known about impacts on nutritional quality, hence the need for this study.

Several of these differences stem from organic livestock production and are brought about by differences in production intensity, with outdoor-reared, grass-fed animals producing milk and meat that is consistently higher in desirable fatty acids such as the omega-3s, and lower in fatty acids that can promote heart disease and other chronic diseases.

The research 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, which was also published in the British Journal of Nutrition, showed that organic crops and crop-based foods contain up to 60% more of a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and contained less of the toxic metal cadmium.

Professor Leifert concluded:

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.

We need substantially more, well designed studies and surveys 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.

However, the fact that there are now several mother and child cohort studies linking organic food consumption to positive health impacts shows why it is important to further investigate the impact of the way we produce our food on human health.

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.

Organic production currently accounts for only one percent of global agricultural land, despite rapid growth in the last two decades. Critics of organic farming have said that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. But a new study out of Washington State University found that isn’t the case: researchers there reviewed of hundreds of published studies and found abundant evidence that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment, and be safer for farm workers.

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About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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