Organic v non-organic: the battle over health benefits

Organic milk and meat could well be healthier than non-organic products. An analysis of over 250 research papers by scientists at Newcastle University found “clear differences” between organic and conventional milk and meat.

“Most importantly, a switch from conventional to organic would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat,” they noted.

However, the paper, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, has created a bit of storm. Professor Tom Sanders from Kings College suggested his peers in Newcastle had gone for headlines and speculation over credibility.

“The review found milk yield was 23% lower for organic milk and there were some minor differences in fatty acid composition which are more related to the production systems rather than whether they were organic or not,” he noted.

He wasn’t alone in questioning the conclusions. Professor Margaret Ryman from the University of Surrey highlighted the low levels of iodine found in organic milk, though this is an issue being addressed by the industry. Meanwhile, the University of Reading’s Professor Ian Givens said “the study uses percentage increase measurements that can imply a greater change than is nutritionally relevant”.

It isn’t the first time the team at Newcastle, led by Professor Carlo Leifert, have courted controversy. Last year, they found that organic crops are 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than those grown conventionally.

“We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food,” Professor Leifert said. “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.”

The Food Standards Agency, to date at least, sticks by its 2009 analysis, which showed that “organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content. Where nutrients are higher in organic crops and livestock products, it is unlikely these differences are relevant to consumer health.”

That was, however, based on the evidence available at the time.

“These scientists have shown that all the hard work organic farmers put into caring for their animals pays off in the quality of the food they produce – giving real value for money,” said Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning.

Research published recently suggested UK consumers are paying an 89% premium for organic products at the major supermarkets.

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