Eat less, choose better: organic is different
Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition demonstrates that the way we produce food has a profound impact on its nutritional profile.
The study, by a team of international researchers led by Newcastle University, set out to establish whether there are any clear nutritional differences between organic dairy and meat compared to non-organic alternatives.
The researchers found that organic milk and meat contain around 50% higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and slightly lower concentrations of saturated fats than conventional products.
Organic milk was also found to contain 40% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been linked to a range of health benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and obesity. There is also now evidence that organic milk and dairy contains slightly higher concentrations of iron, Vitamin E and some carotenoids.
The study drew together the results of hundreds of individual research projects reported in published scientific papers, and constitutes the most comprehensive scientific meta-analysis - the gold standard for scientific evidence - that has ever been undertaken on organic meat and dairy.
Less but better
Organic farming has been shown to be better for wildlife and biodiversity and better for animal welfare. This study demonstrates that organic food is also nutritionally different. This means that by choosing organic, we can eat less and enjoy multiple benefits.
The research shows that switching to grass-fed organic meat would allow a significant (30%) reduction in overall consumption, whilst maintaining the same omega-3 fatty acid intake. There is strong evidence that omega-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on human health including potential protection against cardiovascular diseases certain cancers and dementia.
The research adds to a growing body of science that shows that the hard work organic farmers put into caring for their animals pays off in the quality of the food they produce – organic farming benefits people and planet, and gives consumers real value for money.
Clover is the key
The difference in nutritional profile between organic and non-organic is linked to the prevalence of clover in the animal’s diet. Organic cows and sheep eat grass and clover, and lots of it – organic standards require that at least 60% of an animal’s diet must come from forage (grazing or eating hay or silage).
Clover is the key organic alternative to nitrogen-based fertilisers. Clover, or similar legumes like peas, beans or Lucerne (alfalfa), are used to fix Nitrogen from the air naturally in the soil. As organic farming involves a much lower level of Nitrogen inputs, and with slow-release, plant-based Nitrogen, it is significantly less polluting than non-organic farming. This research shows that the combined clover/grass diet used by organic farmers plays a large role in explaining the nutritional differences in milk and meat.
What about the impact on human health?
Although organic meat and dairy are nutritionally different, the researchers of these latest papers are clear that further research is needed to establish the impact that organic diets might have on human health.
Two relatively new scientific human cohort studies have shown the potential benefits of organic. These found that eating organic vegetables or dairy products was associated with positive health impacts including a 58% reduced risk of genital deformation in boys and a 21% lower risk of pre-eclampsia during pregnancy. An earlier human cohort study in the Netherlands showed that switching to organic milk consumption reduced the risk of eczema in children younger than 2 years by 36%.
Although further research is needed, this new study demonstrates beyond doubt that the way in which we farm affects the nutritional profile of the food on the plate. When it comes to meat and dairy, it pays to eat less, choose better, and buy organic.
References and further information may be found here.
Rob Percival is Policy Officer for food & health at the Soil Association.
Follow Rob on twitter @Rob_Percival_