Hits & Myths: is organic food and drink better for you?

New study finds clear nutritional differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 9:00pm

Is organic better for you?

The straight answer: yes

The facts: it may cost significantly more, but switching to organic milk and meat could boost one’s nutritional intake, especially of healthful fatty acids and certain essential minerals and antioxidants, finds a new study by an international team of experts.

In the largest study of its kind, the research team led by Newcastle University, Britain, found that both organic milk and meat contain about 50 per cent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products.

Organic meat has 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 per cent more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – a nutrient linked to long-term weight management and optimal health – and slightly higher concentrations of iron, Vitamin E and some carotenoids, than conventional milk.

The research team – involving experts from the UK, US, France, Italy, Switzerland, Norway and Poland – arrived at these findings after analysing data from around the world, including 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat. Their findings were published recently in the British Journal of Nutrition.

“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,” says lead researcher Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University.

“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.”

A switch from conventional to organic would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat, the researchers say. For example, half a litre of organic full-fat milk (or equivalent fat intakes from other dairy products such as butter and cheese) provides an estimated 16 per cent (39 mg) of the recommended, daily intake of very long-chain omega-3, while conventional milk provides 11 per cent (25 mg).

“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” says Chris Seal, professor of food and human nutrition at Newcastle.

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 diseases. This included reduced risks of eczema in babies.

The work builds on a previous study by the research team – also published in the British Journal of Nutrition – that showed organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60 per cent 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,” says Leifert.