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Organic Meat and Dairy: Not as Rich in Omega-3s as You Think
Omega-3s: How Much Do You Need?
To put the recent findings in perspective, it's important to understand how much omega-3 fat we should be eating each day, along with the richest sources in our diet. There are two major categories of omega-3 fats. The first is the plant-based type, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in especially high amounts in walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and canola oil. The second group is comprised of longer-chain omega-3 fats, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are plentiful in seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon. While all omega-3s are beneficial, it's the marine-based EPA and DHA forms that seem to be especially important for heart and brain function. Our bodies are able to convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, but the process isn't very efficient, so health experts recommend getting some long-chain omega-3 fats directly from food.
According to the Institute of Medicine, an adequate intake of ALA fat for women is 1100 milligrams (mg) per day, while men should aim for a daily average of 1600 mg. The organization has not yet set an official recommended intake for DHA and EPA, but the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines encourage adults to target 250 mg of the marine omegas daily to protect against cardiovascular disease.
For Omega-3s, Grass-Fed Products Can't Compete With Seafood
Meat and dairy products can also contribute some omega-3 fats because cattle graze on ALA-rich grass and clover. It's not surprising that organic versions have higher levels, because organically-raised cattle must have free access to pasture throughout the entire grazing season, while conventional livestock are finished on grain in feedlots. Though they are not required to be 100 percent grass-fed, organically-produced livestock typically consume more forage, and wind up with more omega-3s as a result.
But some simple number crunching reveals that even meat and dairy products produced from organically-raised cattle don't have that much omega-3 to offer in the grand scheme of things, and most of it is in the easier-to-come-by ALA form. The new British Journal of Nutrition study, which compared data on organic and conventional milk from 170 individual studies, concluded that one cup of conventional whole milk supplies about 50 mg of total omega-3s, with about 12 mg coming from DHA and EPA. Organic milk delivers a bit more — about 85 mg total omega-3s, including about 19 mg as DHA and EPA. That 19 mg is about 8 percent of the daily goal for DHA and EPA, and a drop in the bucket compared to the some 2,500 mg you get from a 4-ounce (oz) serving of salmon. Even low-fat, flaky white fish have 10 to 20 times as much long-chain omega-3 fat as a serving of organic milk. A 4-oz fillet of sole clocks in at 379 mg DHA plus EPA, while a portion of haddock has about 189 mg.
Grass-fed beef doesn't fare much better in comparison. According to the USDA, a 4-oz portion of raw, 85 percent lean grass-fed ground beef delivers 116 mg of ALA and 45 mg of DHA plus EPA. Again, the majority of the omega-3s come in the plant-derived ALA form. For comparison's sake, an ounce of walnuts delivers 2,500 mg ALA and a tablespoon of ground flax seed provides about 1,600 mg.
Good Reasons to Go Organic
Switching to organic or grass-fed milk and meat can give you a small omega boost, but if you're looking to substantially increase these fats in your diet, you'll need to include seafood, walnuts, flax, and other concentrated sources. There are, of course, many other valid reasons to choose organic or otherwise more sustainably produced meat and dairy items at the supermarket. Organically-raised animals are generally treated in a more humane manner, and they are produced without antibiotics, which is significant motivator for many given concerns about antibiotic resistance. In addition, well-managed organic farms can be less energy-intensive than feedlots. That said, eating less meat and more plant-based meals is a far more effective way to reduce your environmental footprint.
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