Two large-scale studies published today suggest that organic milk and meat contain around 50 percent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic equivalents.
Omega-3s have long been hailed for their health benefits, such as improved heart health, improved neurological development and better immune function, and the new research proposes that switching to organic milk and meat would help improve intake of these important nutrients.
A team of two dozen researchers led by Carlo Leifert of the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University analysed almost 200 peer-reviewed studies on milk and 67 studies on meat. They discovered key differences between organic and non-organic produce, most notably when it came to omega-3s.
"Western European diets are recognised as being too low in these fatty acids, and the European Food Safety Authority recommends we should double our intake," said co-author Chris Seal.
"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," added Leifert.
However other experts have questioned the significance of some of the conclusions, reported The Guardian. Ian Givens, professor of food chain nutrition at the University of Reading, argued that though the higher fatty acid content of organic milk was not disputed, a switch from conventional to organic milk would increase intake by only a tiny amount overall: an increase of 1.5 percent in the total diet.
Givens also pointed out that organic produce isn't more nutrient-packed in every sense, for example conventional milk contains 74 percent more iodine and slightly more selenium than organic milk. Iodine and selenium are two minerals essential for healthy development, particularly in pregnant women.
Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at Kings College, said that differences in fatty acid composition might be more to do with production systems than to whether produce is conventional or organic.
"Generally, cows that eat grass produced milk and meat that contained up to 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than those fed on grains," he said. "In countries where there is a lot of rain such as the U.K., Ireland, Brittany and New Zealand most milk and cheese comes from cows fed on grass and you can tell this from the bright yellow colour derived from the carotene present in grass," he said.
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