16 Feb 2016 --- An international team of experts led by Newcastle University, UK, has shown that both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products. The study finds clear differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat.
Analyzing data from around the world, the team reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat and 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.
Publishing their findings in the British Journal of Nutrition, the team say the data shows a switch to organic meat and milk would go some way towards increasing our intake of nutritionally important fatty acids.
Carlo Leifert is the Research Development Professor for Ecological Agriculture, Newcastle University. He tells FoodIngredientsFirst how he believes the new study will impact consumer buying patterns but it all depends on why people buy organic food: “In the UK, where consumers buy, and pay more, for organic produce primarily because they feel it may be better for them or farm animals, the study may well increase demand for organic products.”
He adds: “In Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Austria, where organic consumers are more driven by consumer knowledge/perceptions about environmental and food security benefits, it is likely to have less of an impact.”
A switch from conventional to organic neat and milk would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat. For example, half a liter of organic full fat milk (or equivalent fat intakes from other dairy products like butter and cheese) provides an estimated 16% (39mg) of the recommended, daily intake of very long-chain omega-3, while conventional milk provides 11% (25mg).
Other positive changes in fat profiles included lower levels of myristic and palmitic acid in organic meat and a lower omega-3/omega-6 ratio in organic milk. Higher levels of fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin E and carotenoids and 40% more CLA in organic milk were also observed.
Professor Leifert believes that by eating sufficient amounts of omega-3 rich foods such as oily fish and sea-weed, the diets of many western Europeans could be significantly improved. However he acknowledges that this may have its restrictions: “There is a limit to what extent increased fish consumption can be used to address the omega-3 issue, since most of the oceans are already overfished, there are heavy metal intake issues with too much fish in the diet in many regions and an extension of fish farming may need to take environmental impacts into consideration.”
He adds: “In Western countries we are urged to reduce meat intakes, so production approaches which increase concentrations of omega-3s in meat are a very valuable additional strategy.”
Omega-3 supply will remain an issue especially where people cannot afford enough meat, fish and/or dairy consumption.
Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University explains: “Western European diets are recognized as being too low in these fatty acids and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends we should double our intake, 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.”
The systematic literature reviews analyzed data from around the world and found that organic milk and meat have more desirable fat profiles than conventional milk and meat.
The two new systematic literature reviews also describe recently published results from several mother and child cohort studies linking organic milk, dairy product and vegetable consumption to a reduced risk of certain diseases. This included reduced risks of eczema and hypospadias in babies and pre-eclampsia in mothers.
Avoiding iodine over- and under-supply from milk is a challenge
The study also found 74% more iodine in conventional milk which is important information, especially for UK consumers, where iodized table salt is not widely available.
Iodine is low in most foods, except seafood, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends Iodine fortification of table salt to address this. Iodine fortification of cattle feeds is also widely used to increase iodine concentrations in both organic and conventional milk.
Gillian Butler, co-author and senior lecturer in animal nutrition at Newcastle University, explains:
“There is a relatively narrow margin between dietary Iodine deficiency (<140µg/day) and excessive intakes (> 500µg/day) from our diet which can lead to thyrotoxicoxis.”
“Optimizing iodine intake is therefore challenging, since globally there seems to be as much concern about excessive rather than inadequate intake,” she adds.
In the USA, China, Brazil and many European countries, where Iodine fortified salt is widely used, elevated levels of iodine in milk may increase the risk of excessive intake for individuals with high dairy consumption. For this reason the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has proposed a reduction in the permitted level of iodine in cattle feed from 5 to 2mg iodine per kg of feed.
However, in the UK, where iodized salt is not widely available, the population relies more on milk and dairy products for adequate iodine supply. National Diet and Nutrition Survey data (NDNS) suggest that milk and dairy products supply between 31-52% of iodine in the UK diet.
The daily recommended intake of iodine in the UK is 140 µg/day and just over half comes from dietary sources other than milk/dairy products. Based on results from the study, half a liter of milk would provide 53% of and 88% of the daily recommended intake from organic and conventional milk respectively. However, pregnant and breastfeeding women have a higher iodine requirement (250µg/day) and are therefore more at risk of iodine deficiency, which could affect neurological development in babies.
Further evidence of the health benefits of organic food
The work builds on a previous study by the team – involving experts from the UK, US, France, Italy, Switzerland, Norway 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,” concludes Professor Leifert.
“We need substantially more, well designed studies and surveys before we can accurately estimate composition differences in meat from different farm animals and for many nutritionally important compounds (vitamins, minerals, toxic metal and pesticide residues), as there is currently too little data to make comparisons,” he adds, “There are now several mother and child cohort studies linking organic food consumption to positive health impacts shows why it is important to further investigate the impact of the way we produce our food on human health.”
The authors highlight that only a small number of studies have been carried out comparing organic and non-organic meat, and that even significant results may still carry a high level of uncertainty.
by Elizabeth Kenward
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