Organic meat and dairy have a nutritional advantage, study shows

organic milk
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A new meta-analysis from Newcastle University has found organic products do contain higher levels of healthy fatty acids and certain minerals and antioxidants.

Demand for organic products has been growing steadily over recent years. People usually buy organic because they want to minimize pesticide exposure, support better treatment of animals, and improve nutritional intake. That last point, however, has been contentious for a while. Some scientists have said that organic does little to improve the nutritional profile of foods, beyond reduction of pesticides, while others insist that it is healthier.

Now the research team at Newcastle University has weighed into the debate with the results of a new, large meta-analysis, showing how organic production does boost key nutrients in certain foods. (This same group, known as the Nefferton Ecological Farming Group, made headlines back in 2014 for its huge study on the elevated antioxidant levels and reduced quantities of toxic cadmium in organic crops.)

Using data collected from around the world, the researchers reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 on meat. They found clear differences between the nutritional profiles of organic vs. conventional products. Their findings, which were published in the British Journal of Nutrition, state that the consumption of organic dairy and meat could increase our intake of nutritionally important fatty acids and certain minerals and antioxidants.

Study author Professor Carlo Leifert explains:

“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.”

Human bodies need long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are sadly deficient in the Western diet. Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function, which is why the European Food Safety Authority recommends doubling our intake of omega-3s. Based on these study results, we could get more of them by opting for organic meat and dairy, without increasing the total number of calories.

The downside of organic meat and dairy, however, is that other nutrients are deficient compared to their conventionally produced counterparts. Organic milk has lower iodine and selenium levels. Iodine is particularly important for pregnant women; in places like the United Kingdom, where table salt is not fortified with iodine, women rely on dairy for much of their iodine intake. The study shows that “half a litre of milk would provide 53% of and 88% of the daily recommended intake [of iodine] from organic and conventional milk respectively.”

Prof. Liefert believes that his group’s three studies – these recent ones on milk and meat, as well as the crop study from 2014 – are strong evidence for the necessity of switching to organic products.

He says: “We have shown without doubt that 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.”

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