Is organic food healthier?

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A study just completed by scientists from across the UK, Poland, Norway, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Greece and Turkey has shown that organic meat and milk could be better for you than conventional products.

The comparison is shown in two studies in the British Journal of Nutrition, both led by scientist Professor Carlo Leifert from the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at the University of Newcastle. The studies are based on data analysed from around the world and reviewed 196 research studies (milki) and 67 papers (meat) to identify clear differences between organic and conventional milk/meat. They looked at fatty acid composition and the concentraions of certain minerals and anti-oxidants.

Both organic meat and milk provide 50% more of the omega-3 fatty acids that are important in human nutrition. Organic meat has slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats that are linked to greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

And organic milk contains 40% more linoleic acid, and carries slightly higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids.

But conventional milk contains 74% more iodine and slightly more selenium, two minerals essential for healthy development.

Leifert said: “People choose organic milk and meat for three main reasons: improved animal welfare, the positive impacts of organic farming and the perceived health benefits. But much less is known about the impacts on nutritional quality, hence the need for this study”

“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.”

His co-author and colleague Chris Seal, professor of food and human nutrition at Newcastle said “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 recommends we should double our intake. But getting enough in our diet is difficult. Our study suggests that switching to organic could go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients.”

Although, as with all studies caution must be taken, and some of the increased benefits were only marginal, for example a switch from conventional to organic milk would increase fatty acid content intake by only a tiny amount overall: an increase of 1.5% in the total diet.

Leifert finished by saying “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.”