The two papers (published earlier this year in the British Journal of Nutrition) were funded by the Sheepdrove Trust, a British nonprofit supporting research on organic farming, and the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union. One paper analyzed 196 studies that compared the nutritional profiles of organic and conventional milk. Since there have been fewer comparable studies of meat, the other paper looked at 67 studies of a variety of meats including beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, so they would have enough data for a meta-analysis. Researchers found that organic milk and meat contained over 50% more omega-3s than their conventional counterparts.
What’s causing this difference? Not organic agriculture’s rejection of pesticides, GMOs, hormones and antibiotics, reasons many of us choose organic. It’s because organic standards require that animals have access to pasture, so their primary feed is grass. Animals not raised according to organic standards are typically confined and fed grain to help them put on weight more quickly. Grass contains greater concentrations of omega-3s than grains do, so grazing animals put on fat that differs in composition from that of their confined counterparts. Charles M. Benbrook, a researcher at Washington State University who studies sustainable agriculture and contributed to one of the papers, notes that if conventionally-raised animals were fed grass rather than grain with no other changes to their treatment, their flesh would likewise have greater concentrations of omega-3s.
Omega-3s and Health
It’s important to note that the research looks only at how much omega-3 was found in the meat and milk studied, not at the health effects of eating organic or non-organic products. But nutrition experts generally agree that the Standard American Diet (with the apt acronym SAD) is too low in omega-3s and too high in omega-6s, which come mainly from the numerous vegetable oils prevalent in processed food.
Omega-3s are thought to reduce inflammation and thus the risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. They’re also believed important to cognitive function and brain development as well as having a protective effect against numerous conditions from depression to cancer. Nutrition experts believe that the balance of omega-3s to omega-6s affects health and encourage people to get more 3s and reduce consumption of 6s. Scientists speculate that before the rise of vegetable oils and processed food, people ate roughly the same amounts of omega-3s and 6s; most Americans now consume 10 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. Public health experts wonder if this imbalance might be a factor in many modern maladies from obesity to behavior disorders.
While these meta-analyses suggest you will consume more omega-3s when you eat organic milk and meat, the researchers did not try to determine whether people who do choose organic demonstrate the positive health outcomes associated with greater consumption of omega-3s. In any case, causation would be difficult to prove, as those consuming organic milk and meat are likely also consuming other organic food products, and perhaps have other dietary choices and behavioral factors that would affect health as well.
So Should I Eat More Meat and Dairy?
While it’s nice to know organic practices produce what is likely a more nutritious product, don’t take this study as license to binge on grass-fed beef and cheese. Firstly, meat and milk don’t have especially large amounts of omega-3s, to begin with, so 62% more sounds like a lot more than it is. For example, a serving grass-fed ribeye has only 37 milligrams of omega 3-s (top sirloin has 65), and a glass of grass-fed milk has only 18 milligrams. Compare that to a serving of salmon, which has 1270 milligrams. Even low-fat fish like tilapia has 134 in 4-ounce serving, twice that of top sirloin and more than six times what you find in an 8-ounce glass of organic milk. Switching to or increasing your consumption of organic meat and milk just won’t get you far toward the recommended 1000+ milligrams of omega-3s recommended by doctors and the World Health Organization.
If you’re seeking better health, prevailing wisdom suggests limiting consumption of animal products. It’s smart to choose organic for dairy, meat, and other products to avoid poorly-understood residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, but most nutrition experts recommend a diet high in plant-based foods. If you want to increase consumption of omega-3s, you can also find them in chia seeds, flax, walnuts, and the amazing weed purslane, which is likely growing somewhere in your yard right now. (There is, however, some debate about whether these plant-based sources are utilized similarly by the body, so they may not confer the same effect.)
Fatty fish is another well-known source of omega-3s, though if everyone added as much fish as recommended to our diets, there wouldn’t be any fish left. You can also get your omega-3s from supplements that bypass fish and use algaes like those fish eat as sources omega-3s, which also may help lower your exposure to the heavy metals fish can accumulate.
Besides the somewhat more favorable nutritional profile, the organic versions of meat, dairy, and other products are likely better for you because organic standards do not allow the use of pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, all of which are thought to have adverse health effects. For many organic consumers, the differences in nutrients, whether omega-3s from dairy or lycopene in tomatoes, is less the issue than avoiding substances likely to harm human health, ranging from growth hormones in meat to glyphosate in grain products.
And if you’ve turned to grass-fed meat in an effort to be a good environmental citizen, I’m afraid I have bad news. It turns out that the environmental impact of grass fed meat may actually be greater than grain fed, as the animals require more land to graze and take far longer to reach their full weight, resulting in years more methane emissions.
So by all means, when you’re buying dairy or meat, choose organic. It is likely better for you for myriad reasons. But if it’s omega-3s you’re after, you might want to whip up a smoothie that includes purslane, chia, and a little algae oil. And if it’s your health more broadly that you wish to improve, consume more vegetables, as most of us don’t eat enough. Here and here are some tantalizing plant-based recipes to get you started.