Several recent scientific reviews have examined the nutritional differences between organic and conventional meat. Read on to learn what the researchers found, if organic meat is really better, and what other factors you should consider when buying your next steak dinner.
U.S. organic food sales have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $31.5 billion in 2011 (1), and the demand for organic meat products has steadily increased over the last two decades. Most consumers cite an improved nutrient profile as their primary reason for buying organic (2). But is organic meat really better for us, nutritionally speaking? In this article, I’ll discuss the major differences between organic and conventional meat so that you can make an informed assessment of your meat purchases.
What is organic meat?
Before we dive into the nutritional differences, it’s important that we define what organic meat actually is. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic livestock conditions require that animals must be given year-round access to the outdoors, except in inclement weather. They must be managed without antibiotics (except in cases of illness), added growth hormones, or prohibited feed ingredients like animal byproducts, urea, and arsenic compounds.
Organic livestock must be raised on certified organic land meeting organic crop production standards and any feed must be 100 percent certified organic. Organic ruminants—such as cattle, sheep, and goats—must have free access to organic pasture for the entire grazing season, and 30 percent of their diet must come from organic pasture. Organic practices help to support animal health and are also markedly better from an environmental perspective (3).
Now that we’ve got a basic understanding of what the “organic” label actually means, let’s dive into the nutrition research.
Organic vs. conventional: fatty acid profile
Fatty acids are essential to health and are one of the key areas where organic and conventional meats differ. Two recently published meta-analyses assessed the differences in fatty acid composition between organic and conventionally raised meat and dairy products. We’ll look at the findings of each in more detail.
Meat: The amount of saturated fat was similar in organic and conventional meat, while monounsaturated fats were slightly lower in organic meats. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids were 47 percent higher in organic meat (4). Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and have been shown to be protective against cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline (5).
Dairy: The amount of saturated, monounsaturated, and total polyunsaturated fatty acids was similar in organic and conventional milk. Organic milk had 69 percent higher alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) than conventional milk. ALA is known to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and enhance its clearance from the bloodstream (6). Organic milk also had 41 percent higher conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and 57 percent higher omega-3 fatty acids.
So what about the organic method is driving this difference? The authors suggest that the pasture-based diets prescribed under organic farming standards are the primary reason for differences in fat deposition in the meat. This is consistent with differences seen between grain-fed and grass-fed animals, as we’ll come back to later on.
Five good reasons to choose organic meat.
Organic vs. conventional: other nutrients
While most studies have seemed to focus on the fatty acid differences, a few studies have attempted to assess minerals, toxic metals, and other parameters of nutrition in organic versus conventional meat. Both organic and non-organic meats are rich in essential nutrients, including protein, zinc, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins.
In the same meta-analysis that looked at fatty acid composition, organic dairy was found to have slightly lower iodine and selenium levels, but higher iron and vitamin E levels (4). The authors of the study suggest that the iodine concentrations in conventional milk may be too high in animals receiving large amounts of fortified feed. On the other hand, organic dairy systems support a higher intake of natural alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) and carotenoids (precursors to vitamin E), which surpasses the amount of vitamin E that conventional dairy animals get from synthetic alpha-tocopherol (7).
A different meta-analysis conducted in 2012 found that organic dairy had significantly higher levels of protein than conventional dairy (8).
Would you like some antibiotics with your chicken?
Organic and conventional meats also differ regarding antibiotic use. Antibiotics are used in conventional meat production as a means to promote growth. For many years, farmers did not know why antibiotics helped to make animals larger, only that they worked! We now know that it is their devastating effect on the gut microbiota, the microbes that inhabit the intestines, that produces this effect. By essentially inducing a state of chronic microbial dysbiosis, or an altered gut community, the antibiotics increase the amount of energy that the animals can harvest from the same quantity of food (9). Ironically, most people never think that the same agents that fatten up meat animals (antibiotics, grains) will likely also cause weight gain in humans.
Beyond changing the microbial composition of the gut, many antibiotics are absorbed systemically, meaning that they make their way into the bloodstream and can become “lodged” in various tissues. Antibiotic residues have been detected in meat and other animal products at low levels (10), despite the required USDA withdrawal period before slaughter to try to reduce the amount consumed by humans.
Organic products are also less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These “superbugs” pose a real threat to human health, as research and development for new antibiotics no longer interests most pharmaceutical companies. Bacterial contamination of meat products occurs at about the same rate in organic and conventional meat, but the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics is 33 percent higher in conventional than in organic pork and chicken (11).
Hormones may alter the composition of animal products
Hormones are another factor to consider when weighing the merits of buying organic meat. Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, and trenbolone acetate are among the most commonly used hormones, typically implanted in the ear of the animal three months before slaughter to help promote growth (12). Most of these hormones have been banned in Europe since 1989.
Okay, but do we really ingest enough of these hormones to make a difference? Probably not, but studies have shown that hormones might alter the composition of the meat or dairy product in other ways. For example, while recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is not itself found to be present in dairy products (because the hormone denatures during pasteurization), it may increase the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) (which survives the high heat of pasteurization). Increased IGF-1 levels have been associated with both colon and breast cancer (13). Today, the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada all do not allow the use of rBGH due to both animal and human health concerns.
Pesticides from animal feed end up in meat
Organic meat also has fewer synthetic pesticides involved in its production, which lends to improved animal health and less environmental impact. Like antibiotics, fat-soluble pesticides used to produce chicken feed have been shown to transfer to chicken tissues (14) and eggs (15). We then consume these pesticide residues when we eat the animal product.
This is particularly true for fatty meats. Pesticides, hormones, and other toxins tend to concentrate in the adipose tissue (16). This means that choosing organic may be a particularly wise choice for fattier cuts of meat. It also means that when we ingest these toxins, we store many of them in our fat tissue. Repeated exposures can allow these substances to “bioaccumulate” over time, particularly if you don’t have a healthy detoxification system.
Putting it all together
Taken as a whole, organic meat tends to have a more favorable fatty acid profile and reduces exposure to antibiotic, hormone, and pesticide residues. In reality, organic or non-organic is just one factor to consider when sourcing animal products for your next meal. Other important considerations include:
- Grass-fed vs. grain-fed: If you remember from the beginning of this article, organic livestock are required to be get at least 30 percent of their nutrition from pasture. However, ruminant slaughter stock are exempt from this requirement for the last fifth of their lives (up to 120 days). The organic label therefore tells you nothing about the animal’s diet—in fact, most organic meat in the U.S. is fed at least some grain prior to slaughter. Check out my previous article on this topic for more about the nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed animals.
- Source: If you look closely next time you’re at the supermarket, you’ll likely see that some of the meat that has the USDA certified organic label was not even produced in the USA! In other cases, the animals were raised in the US, but the meat itself was shipped to another country for packaging. Unless immediately frozen and shipped, it’s likely that the meat has lost some of its nutrients. Look for locally produced meat when possible.
- Cost: Cost is, of course, one of the biggest hurdles to many people choosing organic. Organic meat tends to be more expensive, not only because of the effort to use sustainable practices, but also because of the cost of organic certification for the farmer. In most cases, there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on annual sales or production, and inspection fees, in addition to the time required to complete extensive paperwork. Instead of charging conventional farmers for using synthetic chemicals, the burden is on organic farmers to prove the quality of their methods to the USDA. The best option? Get to know your local farmers, and ask about their growing practices! Many small farmers use organic and sustainable practices but do not find it cost effective to get the certified organic label. They are usually more than happy to discuss their methods or even let you visit the farm. Look for cheaper cuts of meat like organ meats, chuck roast, or round steak. Many of these cheaper cuts are just as, if not more, nutritious than their pricier counterparts.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you eat organic meat and other animal products? Have you found a good source at your local farmers market? Share your thoughts in the comments section!