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Consumers looking for a reason to choose organic milk or meat at the grocery store may now have something more to chew on.

In the largest study of its kind, a team of European researchers has shown that the organic varieties of these products provide significantly more omega-3s — the fatty acids touted for their anti-inflammatory properties and their positive effect on heart health, among other health benefits — than their conventional counterparts. Organic milk and meat were also found to contain relatively higher levels of other essential minerals and antioxidants and lower concentrations of two types of harmful saturated fats.

Led by Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in England, the international team analyzed more than 250 studies — 196 studies of dairy and 67 studies of meat — from around the world and found organic milk and meat offered several distinct nutritional advantages:

  • Both organic milk and meat provide about 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Organic milk has 40 percent more conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to reduce body fat.
  • Organic meat contains slightly lower amounts of myristic and palmitic acid, saturated fats that have been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Organic milk provides slightly higher levels of iron, vitamin E, and some carotenoids.

As Leifert explained in a statement released by the university, the higher levels of omega-3 in these types of organic products is primarily due to what the cattle are eating. “Several of these differences,” he said, “stem from organic livestock production and are brought about by differences in production intensity, with outdoor-reared, grassfed 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.”

The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, expands on previous research by Leifert’s team that showed organically grown produce provides as much as 60 percent more key antioxidants than conventional crops. That study also found that conventional produce contains higher levels of cadmium, a toxic metal, than in organic varieties.

Taken together, the research makes a strong argument for organics, said Leifert. “We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food,” he said. “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.”

For some basic tips on making better food choices, see “3 Simple Shifts” in our March 2011 issue.

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