Ellie Burbidge, Registered Dietitian – June 11, 2019
Many people assume “organic” automatically means “healthier” or “more nutritious”. I’ve talked about whether organic produce and eggs are really more nutritious than their conventional alternatives, now it is time to talk about organic beef and dairy!
What does the term “organic” meat really mean?
The United States Department of Agriculture or USDA is responsible for inspecting the safety of meats, poultry, and egg products. They have very specific definitions for what constitutes meat, poultry, and eggs as being able to be labeled “organic.” Overall, the label “organic” means that the food product has met certain guidelines and has been produced through approved methods.
Organic farms or operations must demonstrate that they are “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” In all, this means that organic farms/operations are practicing production methods that help improve our environment and are often more ethical in the treatment of the animals.
More specifically noted by the USDA, organic livestock must be:
“Produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.”
“Managed in a manner that conserves natural resources and biodiversity.”
“Raised per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).”
“Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program authorized certifying agent, meeting all USDA organic regulations.” – A USDA organic certified agent reviews organic farms and operations to make sure it is actually following the “rules” or “guidelines”. Otherwise, who knows if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
Here is what “organic” means for livestock according to the USDA:
o Livestock Living Conditions and Facilities: Livestock must “provide living areas that encourage the health and natural behavior of their animals” while encouraging “animal well-being and environmental quality.” Animals must have “access to outdoor areas, shade, shelter, space for exercise, fresh air, clean drinking water, and direct sunlight” unless under specific conditions (i.e. bad weather).
o Grazing: Cattle, sheep, goats (ruminant animals) must have access to pastures during grazing season and cannot be “continuously confined” unless under specific circumstances (mainly for the health and safety of the animal). The ability to graze provides environmental benefits like manure for fertilization and recycling nutrients in soil.
o Animal Health: Organic livestock producers are encouraged to select breeds that are “well adapted to their environment and incorporate balanced nutrition, exercise, and reduced stress for the animals.” Few drugs are used on organic livestock to prevent parasites or diseases so they rely on more natural preventative measures to keep animals healthy (like through animal selection and operation management and sanitation practices). Organic livestock commonly receive vaccinations but cannot be given antibiotics and growth hormones. Pain medications and dewormers are allowed if the animal is ill and other alternatives have not been successful. If an animal is sick enough to need antibiotics, that animal is removed from the rest of the group and can no longer be sold as “organic”.
Note: Conventionally produced animal foods also cannot have antibiotic residues. Also, while organic livestock cannot be given any growth hormones (like rBGH) because it can cause adverse health effects in cattle, there is a lack of evidence that proves any potential harm in humans. Aside from that, most grocery stores no longer carry milk from cows treated with growth hormones (rBGH) whether they are conventional or organically produced. A USDA survey in 2007 found that fewer than 1 in 5 cattle were being injected with rGBH.
o Organic Feed: Organic livestock must eat certified organic feed that are grown in other certified organic operations. Any pastures, forages, hay, etc. that is available to the livestock must be certified as organically grown. Organic livestock can be fed non-organic vitamins and minerals in “trace amounts” but no growth hormones, mammalian or avian byproducts, or other prohibited feed ingredients (like urea, manure, or arsenic compounds) are allowed. Additionally, animals cannot be fed GMO foods/crops (genetically modified).
o Animal Origin: Organic livestock usually come from organically raised farms or operations starting the last third of gestation. Birds (poultry) may come from organic or conventional operations but must be raised organically starting the second day of life. For dairy animals, they must be managed under organic standards for at least 12 months before milk or other dairy products can be sold and labeled as organic.
Does Grass-fed mean Organic?
In the past, the USDA has had an official definition for what “grass-fed” was, meaning you couldn’t put “grass-fed” of a food label unless you met specific criteria. In 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the USDA, announced that they were dropping its official definition of “grass-fed” meaning anyone can interpret grass-fed as they will and put it on packaging without government regulation. Today, a “grass-fed” label on packaging does not guarantee that a product is organic. I wouldn’t focus on “grass-fed” labels and stick to deciding between “organic” and “conventional” due to the lack of definition for the term “grass-fed” today. However, in general, organic livestock are fed more natural grass, grain and forage compared to conventional livestock so “grass-fed” livestock are probably more likely to be from organic operations.
Now we can examine the nutritional differences between organic and conventional beef so you can decide what is best for you nutritionally and financially!
Nutritional Differences Between Organic and Conventional Beef and Milk
In 2016, there were two meta-analyses done that examined numerous studies exploring nutritional differences in organic and conventional meat. The first looked at 67 published research studies done on beef and the second looked at 170 published research studies done on milk (6,7).
Beef: The meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that conventional and organic beef had similar levels of saturated (unhealthy) fat and organic beef had slightly lower levels of monounsaturated (healthy) fats. Organic beef had an estimated 23% more polyunsaturated (healthy) fats and 47% more of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional beef. Additionally, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (a ratio used to measure heart health) was found to be better in organic beef compared to conventional beef. However, the reliability of the data included in the omega-3 fatty acid levels in this meta-analysis was low (poor) so interpretation of these results should be considered with caution and stated as limited. A different study concluded that organic cattle produced meat that was higher in omega-3 fats, whereas conventional cattle had a higher amount of omega-6 fats (8).
Milk: The other meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found no significant differences between organic and conventional milk in total saturated (unhealthy) fat and monounsaturated (healthy) fats. However, organic milk did have 7% more polyunsaturated (healthy fats), 56% more omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, 69% more omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) fats, 57% more EPA and DHA, and 41% more conjugated linoleic acid compared to conventional milk.
Wow, that was a lot a of scientific words. In all, organic milk appears to have a nutritional composition more favorable in healthy fats. The data from these 170 studies were found to have moderate reliability so we can assume the data is fairly dependable.
Bottom line: Cattle on organic farms or operations produce meat and milk that is higher in beneficial omega-3 fats because experts believe these cattle eat more natural grain, grass, and forage. While research supports that there are statistically significant differences in omega-3 fats when comparing organic beef to conventional beef, we then must determine if those differences are clinically or biologically significant.
Essentially this means, yes, we know organic beef and milk is higher in omega-3 fats compared to their conventional counterparts but does that increase actually make a biological difference in our health?
The composition of any meat only contains small levels of omega-3 fats regardless of if it is conventional or organic. To give you an idea, data shows that both predominantly grass-fed cattle and predominantly grain-fed cattle typically provide less than 100 mg of omega-3’s per serving. Other research shows that conventional milk had about 50 mg of omega-3’s per cup compared to 75 mg of omega-3’s per cup in organic, grass fed milk.
To put those numbers in perspective, benefits to heart health from omega-3 fat consumption are seen when one consumes about 500 to 1,000 mg per day (9). Fatty fish (like salmon) can provide up to 1,000 mg per serving because it naturally contains a lot more omega-3s.
In other words, there are other food sources we should be consuming (aside from beef, milk, poultry, and eggs) that are higher in omega-3’s and will increase our potential for heart health benefits from omega-3 consumption. Additionally, there are currently no studies showing a link between consumption of organic foods and reduced risk of chronic disease (10).
So, the main takeaway should be that yes, organic beef/milk is probably going to give you more omega-3 fats than conventional bee/milk. However, it is still going to contain a relatively small amount and you should still consume other foods that are higher in omega-3 fats (like fatty fish) to meet your omega-3 needs. Eating/drinking organic beef/milk isn’t likely going to give you a significant health advantage since the amount of omega-3’s is still relatively low compared to other foods, but, if your diet is low in omega-3 rich seafood and seeds (i.e. walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds), then organic beef/milk may help you at least get more omega-3 fats in your diet. Both organic and conventional beef has been found to be a good source of protein, zinc, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins. Both organic and conventional milk are rich in calcium, vitamin D, potassium, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and riboflavin. I do want to mention that aside from nutrition, supporting organic farms and operations by buying organic does improve and support our environmental health as well.
There is a small potential benefit for consuming organic meat and milk with relation to omega-3 fatty acid levels. Is that small potential nutritional benefit and support for environmental health worth the financial cost? That is up to you!