Different does not necessarily mean better.
In the largest study of its kind, an international team of experts led by Newcastle University in the UK, have shown that there are differences between organic and conventional milk and meat products.
The team analyzed data from around the world, including reviewing 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat, and they found clear differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat, especially in terms of fatty acid composition and concentrations of essential minerals and antioxidants.
In fact, they found that both organic milk and meat contain around 50 percent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than the conventional products, indicating a switch to organic products would increase our intake of nutritionally important fatty acids.
Chris Seal, a professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University explained in a press release, “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.”
A switch from non-organic to organic would increase omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories or saturated fat. For example, according to the research, half a litre of organic full fat milk provides an estimated 16 percent of the recommended daily intake, while conventional milk provides 11 percent.
Other positive differences included lower levels of myristic and palmitic acid in organic meat, a lower omega-3/omega-6 ratio in organic milk and higher levels of fat soluble vitamins, carotenoids, and CLA (a fatty acid) in organic milk.
The study also showed that these 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. Organic milk consumption by mothers have also been linked to a reduced risk of eczema in babies.
According to Newcastle University's Carlo Leifert, who led the study, 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.”
However, the study also found 74 percent more iodine in conventional milk, which is important for consumers in the U.K. where iodized table salt is not widely available. They rely on milk and dairy products for their iodine intake so they do not become iodine deficient. In the USA, Canada, China and many European countries, iodine-fortified salt is widely used to prevent goiters and cretinism, a leading cause of preventable intellectual disabilities.
A previous study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, showed that organic crops and crop-based food are 60 percent higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops, and they also contained less cadmium — a toxic metal.
“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,” explained Leifert.
However, more studies must be conducted before scientists can estimate differences in meat compositions, such as vitamins, minerals, toxic metals and pesticide residues, from different farm animals.
The authors also note that only a small number of studies have been carried out comparing organic and nonorganic meat, and that even significant results can still carry a high level of uncertainty. Since this is such an important topic in terms of the way we produce food and human health, we can be certain more studies are currently underway.