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Organic meat and milk put to the test by British study at Newcastle University

Grass-fed is good, but how do organic and conventional compare?Once upon a time milk and meat were an unadulterated affair.
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Milk  was delivered by the milkman in a glass bottle without labels with the cream still on top.

That was a long, long time ago.

Now it comes with strings attached; there’s lactose-free, permeate-free, low-fat, high-protein, A2-only protein, pasteurised, homogenised, unpronounceable, unrecognisable, milk-free milk.

Similarly, meat selection was once a choice of cut or creature.

Now, there’s wagyu, free-range, grass-fed, grain-fed, hormone-free, nitrate-free, heart-smart, the list goes on.

If you haven’t become vegan or collapsed from choice overload, there may be a more simple debate to consider.

Is it worth the extra dollars for organic instead of conventional (it is about $3.29 a litre in Woolies for organic versus about $2.15 for conventional, $9.89 for 450g of organic beef mince versus about $5 for conventional)?

A new study, the largest of its kind to date, set out to delineate the nutritional differences (ethical differences, are another matter, one arguably of equal or greater importance and justify being a food wanker).

Breaking down the data from 196 studies on milk and 67 on meat from around the world, the British researchers from Newcastle University found that there were clear nutritional differences between conventional and organic meat and dairy.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS

It was found that both organic milk and meat contain about 50 per cent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products.

“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” said study co-author Professor Chris Seal.

“But getting enough in our diet is difficult. Our study suggests that switching to organic would go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients.”

Nutritionist and founder of The Health Clinic Pip Reed adds that our bodies can’t produce omega-3 fatty acids so we need them from food.

“Studies show that three in five Australians don’t eat the recommended two to three serves of 150 grams of oily fish per week required for good heart health,” Reed says, “and less than 10 per cent of children meet these recommendations which means that having additional sources of omegas available through organic milk and meats is extremely important.”

FURTHER HEALTH BENEFITS

The researchers also found organic meat and dairy contain about 40 per cent more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and “slightly higher” concentrations of iron, Vitamin E and some carotenoids.

What on earth is CLA, you ask?

“CLA is a natural polyunsaturated fat found in meat and dairy products, and is one of the most popular weight loss supplements,” Reed says. “It is technically a natural trans fat, however without the risks that come with artificially made trans fats renowned for damaging our health.

“Getting CLA from animal milk products is important, as supplement versions are derived from sunflower and safflower oil, and do not have the same health benefit effect on our bodies.”

CONVENTIONAL WIN

Conventional milk, with 74 per cent more iodine and slightly more selenium, was a winner here.

This is significant given that iodine deficiencies in Australia were considered enough of a problem that, in 2009, mandatory fortification of baked bread and iodised salt was introduced.

Now it affects about 12.8 per cent of Australians.

“Iodine and selenium are both important essential minerals that help regulate the thyroid hormones, controlling metabolism, body temperature, improve energy levels, as well as aid in detoxification, providing antioxidants, healthy pregnancy and stabilising healthy weight,” Reed says.

“These two essential minerals, in excess consumption, can cause toxicity, so unless you are deficient in these minerals and/or not eating a well rounded diet then the increase of iodine and selenium in conventional milk may not be of benefit to you.”

VERDICT

The dietitians:

“While we no doubt all agree with not using chemicals if possible and the philosophy of organic farming, we have to question if it can really produce enough food to feed us all?” says Dr Joanna McMillan.

“The cost is still prohibitive for most and at the end of the day are these differences clinically significant? Most people just need to eat more real food before they think about whether they can make the switch to organic.”

“This analysis clearly shows that organic milk has higher concentrations of omega 3 fatty acids than conventional milk. However the analysis also found that grass-fed cattle tend to produce milk with higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids,” says Nutrition Plus dietitian Melanie McGrice. “We are blessed to be living in a country where most of our cattle are grass-fed, and they are not locked away in stalls.

“The analysis found that organic milk is a more nutritious option, and I’d certainly be in favour of people using it… [but] we don’t really drink milk for its omega 3 anyway  – for that we should be turning to fish.

“In summary, drink organic milk if you’d like to and can afford it, but conventional milk is still a nutritious choice if you can’t.”

The study author:

“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,” said the study author, Professor Carlo Leifert. “But much less is known about 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.”

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