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Article by Jenna Kluempke & Beth Mark

The health benefits of organic vs. non-organic food has been an ongoing debate for some time now. Many people who prefer organic want to avoid pesticide use and appreciate that organic farming practices are better for the environment. Some scientists believe there are numerous benefits to eating organic versus not, and some say that the benefits are indistinguishable between the two. While the questions of eating organic have not all been answered, the results of a new study may add another compelling reason to the “pro-organic” list for consumers. An international group of scientists recently found that organic milk and meats contained levels of omega-3 fatty acids that were 50% higher than in their conventional counterparts.

The true power of Omega-3s

Omega-3s, which are found more commonly in grasses versus grain, are a polyunsaturated fat known to help reduce the risks of heart disease, including high cholesterol and low blood pressure. The dietary guidelines put forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2010 recommended Americans eat more seafood – rich in omega-3 fatty acids – due to the many health benefits of these fats. In the case of this study of organic milk and meat, however, the source of the increased omega-3 may have more to do with what the animals are eating than anything else. Animals raised under organic standards spend time outside grazing on grass, compared to grain-fed cows that produce conventional beef and milk. (Organically raised cattle are also not given hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified feed.)

The study, led by Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University in London and published in The British Journal of Nutrition, used a meta-analysis to examine all current papers on the topic and synthesize findings into a common conclusion. Because there are so few studies on organic beef alone, reports and studies looking at all categories of organic meats – 67 in total – were analyzed. A study led by Dr. Leifert two years earlier reviewing fruits and vegetables found that organic varieties had higher levels of antioxidants and less pesticide residue than conventional produce.

Skepticism about the real benefits of organic vs. conventional foods remains

With previous studies that have found consumption of 200 milligrams of omega-3s per day to improve one’s health, critics say that one serving of organic meat or milk will not produce any noticeable nutritional benefit. Adding a couple glasses of organic milk and a few servings of organic fruits and vegetable would certainly help. Still others argue that replacing red meat altogether with poultry or fish is the better, more beneficial option.

Leifert continues to explore the potential health differences between organic and non-organic foods. In a current experiment, he’s found that crop pesticide residue has an effect on the hormonal balances of rats.

So, the next time you’re at the grocery store debating whether or not to pay the extra price for organic beef or milk, it may be worth taking a step back to think about the broader benefits, both health-related and otherwise. The cost may be an initial deterrent, but the differences could have a long-term impact on the health of you and your children.


Image courtesy of Pexels.