Organic vs conventional and what fish has in common with organic whole milk

Marianne Landzettel - 12 August 2014

A widely reported study published in the July edition of the British Journal of Nutrition found that there is a significant difference between organic and non-organically grown fruit, veg and cereal crops. Organic produce has a higher concentration in antioxidants and less cadmium, nitrate, nitrite and pesticide residue. In other words: more good stuff and less of the bad. (For more detail see Everyone commenting on the findings was at pains to emphasize that this does not prove that eating organic food is healthier. Granted, there’s more to our health than the food we eat, and it is probably hard to scientifically quantify the exact contribution of organic vs conventionally grown fruit and veg. But maybe there are other ways of thinking about it.

Chuck Benbrook, is a scientist at the Centre for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. One of his topics is the nutritional quality of food and the organic vs non-organic debate. In an interview on the Food Sleuth podcast he was asked why there are more antioxidants in organic fruit and veg than in conventionally grown ones. His answer: Organic fruit in particular are often smaller than their conventional counterparts as their volume is not boosted by a dose of chemical fertilizer and that means a higher concentration of the ‘good stuff’. And organic fruit and veg have to 'fend' for themselves. They don’t get a regular dose of pesticides or fungicides to help them ward of pests and diseases, instead plants and trees have to activate their own strength and resources. And in many instances we may not even know yet how this benefits us too: a whole organic apple or carrot may be more than the sum of its components.

In a recent study into the health benefits of dairy products Chuck Benbrook found that in organic whole milk the ratio of two components, omega-3 fatty acids (that’s the one fish has lots of, too) and omega-6 fatty acids, is a lot more beneficial than in any other milk. ‘All milk is good for you’ writes Benbrook, ‘but organic whole milk is even better.’ Both, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients, but, says Benbrook, while we normally get more than enough omega-6, we consume too little omega-3. ‘Omega-3 fatty acids help prevent inflammation, promote heart health, and are critical for the healthy development of infants and children.’

Over 18 months Benbrook and his fellow researchers looked at 384 samples of organic and conventionally produced milk. While the fat content was roughly the same, organic whole milk contained 62% more omega-3 fatty acids and a quarter fewer omega-6s than conventionally produced milk. Organic dairy cows are mainly grass-fed and ‘pasture grasses in dairy cow diets improves the nutritional quality of milk’, says Benbrook.

Of course you could argue that this is a US study and in the UK some conventional dairy cattle is also grass fed. But even if the benefit for your health may not be quantifiable, by eating organic fruit and veg, cereals, dairy and meat, you contribute to the health and wellbeing of others: that of animals, plants and soil. By supporting organic agriculture (which does not allow the use of manufactured chemical fertilizers and most pesticides) you contribute to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and an increase in biodiversity. Eating organic is about a lot more than your health. 


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V Clark
21 August 2014 17:06

Hopefully with this report they will Not now be adding folic acid to organic flour, however hard some small groups are lobbying for its inclusion. Non-organic may lack nutrients, but this shows how much better for us organic truly is.

Anna Louise Batchelor
18 August 2014 11:58

This is a good post reporting on the findings from the meta study Marianne. The Benbrook research is interesting too however you rightly point out that buying and eating organic food is more important that just our own health, it's about the health of the planet and the animals within the agricultural system too.

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