A recent study funded by the European Commission and the Sheepdrove Trust, a British charity which supports organic farming research, found that organic meat and milk have a 50 percent higher omega-3 fatty acid composition than conventional products. Omega-3 fats can help lower the risk of heart disease. The study analyzed 196 papers concerning organic and conventional milk and 67 papers which analyzed organic versus nonorganic meats.
But the benefits don’t seem to be directly linked to the attributes usually associated with organic foods, such as being free from antibiotics or hormones. Rather, the compositional difference is a result of the requirement that organically raised animals spend time outside. Organic milk and beef come from cattle which feeds on grass, whereas conventionally raised animals mostly subsist on grain. Omega-3 is much more prevalent in grass than in grain, and according to Charles M. Benbrook, one of the authors of the study, most of the same changes would be observed in conventionally raised animals if they were to have grass-based diets.
There is also the question of whether these differences will translate to improved health in people who consume organic products. Some scientists insist that organic foods are nutritionally indistinguishable from conventional foods, while others argue that there are significant health benefits to eating organic. Dr. Bazinet, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto who was not involved with the research, says that adding 200 milligrams of omega-3s per day to the average diet should result in health benefits, but switching to organic beef would only add about 50 milligrams.
However, while eating one grass-fed beef serving per day might not make a noticeable impact, if it is combined with a few glasses of organic milk, it could have a measurable effect. Organic products were also found to contain slightly less omega-6 than conventional products. Omega-6 is healthy and necessary in small quantities, but today, most Americans eat ten times as much omega-6 as omega-3s, a ratio which was one-to-one 100 years ago. Some argue that this increase is unhealthy.
Replacing red meat with fish and poultry would result in far greater differences in fatty acid consumption than switching to organic beef, but a shift to organic meats and milk could provide a healthier alternative while still allowing people to eat the foods they’re already eating.