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Why to go organic

Ground-breaking new study finds clear nutritional differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat
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A new study published this week (16 February 2016) in the British Journal of Nutrition shows organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic.

Hard work pays off

Analysing data from around the world, the team – led by Newcastle University – reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat in the largest systematic review of its kind. They 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.

In addition to organic milk and meat, the nutritional differences also apply to organic dairy like butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt.

‘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.’

Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association

The findings

  • Both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products.
  • Organic milk and dairy contain slightly higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids.
  • Organic meat had slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats linked to heart disease.
  • Organic milk and dairy contain 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.
  • Organic milk contains less iodine than non-organic milk.
  • ‘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.’

    Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association

Benefits of clover

The difference in omega-3 is because organic animals have to eat a more natural grass-based diet containing high levels of clover.

Clover is used in organic farming to fix nitrogen so that crops and grass grow (instead of manufactured/chemical fertilisers), and this research has found that clover also increases the omega-3 concentrations in meat and milk.

Under organic standards, organic cows must eat a 60% fresh grass-based diet or hay/silage (conserved grass).

Comparable iodine levels

Historic research highlighted that organic milk contained less iodine, and the industry has taken steps to address this.

OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) – representing over 65% of the UK’s organic milk supply – announced that in 2015 organic milk had achieved comparable levels of iodine to conventional and in 2016, following recent testing of bottled milk, they announced these levels of iodine have been maintained.

‘We initiated projects to boost iodine levels and applied these to our farmer members’ enterprises, and by early 2015 we announced that we’d achieved comparable levels with those in the conventional market. Our latest results have shown that one year on from the initial milestone we’re maintaining those levels.’

Richard Hampton, managing director at OMSCo

Building evidence

The work 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.

‘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.’

Professor Carlo Leifert, study lead, Newcastle University

The entire database generated and used for this analysis is freely available on the Newcastle University website, alongside the data from their previous study on organic versus conventional crops.

Click here to read the full study in the British Journal of Nutrition.

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