WORLD leading nutritional research is pointing to organic livestock production as a means of boosting the famous fatty acids linked with a swag of health benefits, omega-3s, without lifting meat consumption.
Meat is a substantial source of omega-3s, for which there is strong evidence helps in protecting against cardiovascular diseases, cancers and dementia.
Work coming out of Northern NSW’s Centre for Organics Research, a joint initiative of Lismore-based Southern Cross University and the NSW Department of Primary Industries, shows there are meaningful nutritional differences between organic and non-organic meat and milk.
It comes down to production systems.
In a nutshell, outdoor grazing on species-rich grassland with legumes and herbs equals high omega-3s along with other sought-after human diet components, the Centre’s director Professor Carlo Leifert said.
At the same time, livestock fed mainly maize and cereals equates to higher levels of the nutritionally undesirable omega-6s and the saturated fatty acids, myristic and palmitic.
Myristic acid is the saturated fatty acid most clearly linked to increased cardiovascular disease risk.
Prof Leifert played a key role in 2016 international analysis considered the most extensive and reliable carried out so far comparing the nutrient content in organic and conventionally produced meat, which provides clear evidence of significant compositional differences.
The results of this meta-analysis showed that organic milk and meats, especially beef, were of higher nutritional quality than their non-organic counterparts, he said in a recent presentation at Coffs Harbour.
Much of the data used in the research was from Europe and the United States, however it was based on livestock production methods similar to Australia’s, he said.
“In organic farming, the focus is on welfare and sustainability - that means outdoor production, lower stocking densities rates, no antibiotics, growth promoters or hormones and no synthetic pesticides,” he said.
“Only mineral supplements are used and ruminants need to be on a high grazing, high forage intake system where the use of cereal and protein crops is limited.
“Most of the differences we’ve found in nutritional values of meat and milk are linked to these parameters.”
The analysis showed there was around 50 per cent more omega-3s in standard organic meat and about 100pc more in grassfed organic.
Similar benefits of grass-fed over grain-fed beef were also shown for Australian beef in a RMIT University/DPI study, Prof Leifert said.
“This is the only compound nutritional experts tell us we definitely need more of in our diet,” he said.
Breeds are another influence on omega-3 content, given differences in ability to convert feed to omega-3 content, and the work with dairy cattle indicated traditional breeds do a better job in that regard.
Meanwhile, the omega-6 content can be reduced by about a third by going organic.
The research also found that despite conventional farming using synthetic vitamin E supplements, the production systems based on grazing still had higher vitamin E content in the milk produced.
Iodine concentrations, which are significantly lower in organic milk and meat, was another interesting area, Prof Leifert said.
“This can be positive or negative, depending on what your country’s iodine supplementation strategy is,” he explained.
Iodine is an essential mineral for thyroid function and brain development and recommendations are higher for pregnant women.
Optimum iodine intake levels are close to excessive intake levels.
Iodine teat disinfection and mineral supplementation in conventional livestock production can result in excessive dietary intakes in humans.
“In Australia, table salt is fortified with iodine but in the UK that that is not done,” Prof Leifert said.
“In Australia, there is also a high fish intake. So in Australia, it could be a good thing to have lower iodine in milk and meat.
“Changing iodine concentration in organic milk, via changes to mineral supplementation of animal feeds or teat disinfection, is relatively easy, if iodine concentrations supply is thought to be too low.
“Also, during pregnancy and for individuals with a vegan or dairy-free diet the use of iodine supplements can help to ensure sufficient iodine intake.”