It’s long been a contentious debate: Is organic food really any better for you than non-organic food? Well, now those who are proponents of organic eating may have some proof—by way of the largest study of its kind to date.
The researchers, led by experts from Newcastle University, reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat and discovered several trends between them—namely, that organic and conventional milk and meat have different fatty acid compositions and essential mineral levels.
In fact, the study, which is published in British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic whole milk and meat had 39 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, whereas conventional milk averaged 25 milligrams—meaning that organic milk has more than 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional products.
The meat was found to have around 50% more omega-3s as well. Since many Americans and Europeans don’t ingest enough of these essential nutrients on a weekly basis, this means that, according to the study, a switch of conventional milk to organic milk would allow you to consume more of these nutrients without changing your caloric intake—which would have many benefits.
“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” explained Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University, in a statement.
“Western European diets are recognised 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.”
According to the study, they also discovered that organic milk had significantly higher levels of fat soluble vitamins, like vitamin E and carotenoids—40% more. Organic milk also had a more desirable fat profile, with a better ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s (the best ratio for humans is to ingest 1:1 overall, which most people fail to achieve) and lower amounts of myristic and palmitic acid—fats which are tied to heart disease.
So why are they different?
It appears that the differences between organic and conventional milk and meat stems from a simple source: What the animals themselves ate.
“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,” said Newcastle University’s Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the studies.
“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.”
Upon the release of this study last night, however, dissidents immediately began to let their voices be heard. Andrew Porterfield from the Genetic Literacy Project, who has an MS in biotechnology, pointed out that the Leifert (the study leader) actually owns his own organic farm in Greece—which may be a conscious or unconscious bias on his part.
But perhaps the most compelling argument came by way of Ian Givens, who is a professor of food chain nutrition at the University of Reading.
“Differences in content such as fatty acids or iodine occur primarily because organic animals are fed more of a forage-based diet, such as grass, than their non-organic counterparts,” he told the Telegraph. “You get the same kind of changes in food composition if non-organic animals are fed forage-rich diets too. It’s the choice of feed, not the organic farming method, which makes the difference.”
Feature Image: Thinkstock