We’ve all been there: You’re standing in front of the dairy case at the supermarket — or perhaps it’s the meat display — frozen momentarily by indecision. Should you spend the few extra bucks to buy organic milk vs regular milk? You like the idea, but milk and beef aren’t exactly grapes and cucumbers; it’s not like you’ll get a mouthful of pesticides if you buy non-organic. So is there any real reason to splurge on the “good” stuff?
British scientists say “yes.” In a remarkable act of validating what might seem obvious, two new reviews in the British Journal of Nutrition by researchers at Newcastle University (available for viewing here and here) show that organic milk and meat are, in fact, more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts. Specifically, they contain about 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests can help reduce cardiovascular disease, boost neurological function, and improve immunity.
When animals graze freely, as they do on organic farms, they store more of these “nutritionally desirable” fatty acids, says study author Carlo Leifert, Ph.D., a research development professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in the UK.
Cows, for example, are meant to eat roughage, not cereal grains like corn. Cows’ guts, which include multiple stomachs, evolved over thousands of years to digest material such as grass, clover, and herbal plants, says study author Urs Niggli, Ph.D., director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL, Switzerland. Those greens contain plenty of omega-3s, plus biochemicals such as tannins that protect the beneficial fatty acids from digestion by the bacteria in cow guts. “Therefore, the transfer efficiency (from feed to milk or meat) for omega-3 is much higher from pasture than from cereals,” he says.
Research also suggests that the cattle breeds popular on organic farms might digest omega-3s more favorably and that the high milking frequency and robotic milking used on conventional farms negatively impacts milk quality.
Leifert says it’s smart to go organic for health reasons, and because you can gain similar nutritional benefits with smaller portions of meat, thus helping to promote future food security. “Based on the results of our study, we estimate that switching to organic meat consumption would allow you to reduce meat consumption by 30% without a reduction in omega-3 intake,” he says.
Niggli cites even more reasons to pick up organic products. “In addition, organic farming offers important co-benefits like conserving soil fertility, avoiding soil erosion, enhancing biodiversity in crops and in the landscape, and reducing pesticide load in the environment by 95 percent in arable crops,” he says.
Look for products with the “USDA Organic” seal. Products from grass-fed animals may also contain other labels, such as Food Alliance Certified Grass-fed, which indicates that animals are exclusively pasture-fed.
One more thing: Eating organic milk and meat doesn’t mean you should neglect to include other sources of omega-3’s in your diet, such as fish, which remain the best source of EPA, DPA, and DHA. Indeed, the amount of Omega-3’s in meat are paltry by comparison. Your goal: 8 ounces of fish per week, according to the latest dietary guidelines.