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Study finds further “clear differences” between organic and non-organic

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A new study has shown that both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products.

Analysing data from around the world, the team led by Newcastle University, 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.

Publishing its findings today in the British Journal of Nutrition, the team says the data show a switch to organic meat and milk would go some way towards increasing 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 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.”

“Our study suggests that switching to organic would go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients”

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, dairy product and vegetable 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.”

But the study also found that conventional milk contains typically 74% more iodine than organic milk. In the UK – where iodized table salt is not widely available – this is important information, the Newcastle team says, since consumers rely more on milk and dairy products to maintain adequate iodine supply. The UK’s lead organic group, the Soil Association, says that the organic milk has already taken action to address the iodine issue. An initiative launched in 2015 by OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) representing over 65% of the UK’s organic milk supply, has successfully resulted in organic milk from its producers consistently achieving iodine levels comparable with conventional milk.

The latest Newcastle University-led research builds on a previous study by the team – involving experts from the UK, US, France, Italy, Switzerland,and Poland – investigating the composition of organic and conventionally-grown crops.

This previous study – also published in the British Journal of Nutrition – 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.

Carlo-leifert-standard“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,” concludes Professor Leifert.

“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 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”

Speaking about the research, Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association said; “This research confirms what many people have always thought was true – what you feed farm animals and how you treat them affects the quality of the food – whether it’s milk, cheese or a cut of meat.  These scientists have shown that all the hard work organic farmers put into caring for their animals pays off in the quality of the food they produce – giving real value for money.

“Organic farming methods require all organic farmers to adopt techniques that guarantee nutritionally different foods. Following research in 2014 confirming nutritional differences between organic and non-organic crops like fruit and vegetables – we can now say for certain that organic farming makes organic food different.”

Richard Smith, senior farms manager from organic meat producers Daylesford Organic, said; “We farm organic red meat on a grass-based, home-grown forage diet which delivers a superb quality. In addition to other benefits of producing food in an organic system, this land-mark paper now also confirms what we’ve always known; there is also a significant nutritional difference between organic and non-organic.”

Key findings:

  • Both organic milk (dairy) and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products
  • Organic meat had slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats linked to heart disease
  • Organic milk and dairy contains 40% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – CLA has been linked to a range of health benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and obesity, but evidence is mainly from animal studies
  • Organic milk and dairy contains slightly higher concentrations of iron, Vitamin E and some carotenoids
  • Organic milk contains less iodine than non-organic milk

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