Research sponsored by the UK organic milk producers’ association OMSCo reveals that organic milk contains higher levels of fatty acids than conventional milk. If the benefits suggested by the research are ratified by the Food Standards Agency, organic milk could become the latest organic food to be marketed on its active health benefits. Joe Ayling reports.

Organic products were originally promoted primarily for what they did not have – namely additives, pesticides and the like – but there is now a clear trend for marketing organics on the active health benefits derived from their higher levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids. And the recent revelation that organic milk contains higher levels of omega-3 than the non-organic version is a prime example.

The UK’s Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative (OMSCo), which represents 300 milk producers, wants to win over more consumers by communicating organic milk’s higher proportion of omega-3, which cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained through diet. Scientists at Liverpool and Glasgow Universities in the UK have found a direct link between the whole organic farming system and increased levels of the essential fatty acid in organic milk.

Coinciding with the Soil Association’s Organic Food Fortnight, which began last Monday (4 September), research sponsor OMSCo has sent a letter to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), asking it to “revise its position and recognise for the first time that there is a nutritional difference between organic and non-organic milk”.

The FSA has said it will review OMSCo’s findings. “We are looking at the details of it and will be seeking scientific advice as necessary,” the FSA told just-food. “It is an interesting study.”

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The research, which looked at milk production from a cross-section of UK farms over a three-year period, claims that organic milk contains around 68% more total omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk, and has a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The researchers attributed the high omega-3 content to the entire organic system, and not just the high clover content of an organic cow’s diet.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with improved cardiovascular health, anti-inflammatory effects and benefits to the immune system. While there are other sources, such as oily fish, none seems to be as much of a dietary fixture as milk, which many people use daily.

OMSCo marketing manager Rosie Palmer says the findings are a further boost to a product that is already growing rapidly, by 47.3% in the full-year period to August 2006. Although this growth is slower than last year, when sales increased by 91%, the omega-3 developments can only spur on the growth of organic milk.

“It is probably a bit too early to tell at the moment, but I would be surprised if it doesn’t have a positive effect on the success of organic milk. This would help the industry as a whole,” said Palmer. “Consumer perception is that organic is better, but it can be difficult to prove it scientifically; these findings go a step closer to that.”

At the moment, organic milk accounts for only 3% to 4% of the total milk market in the UK, partly due to a hefty price premium. “The price reflects that the market is in short supply and that the product is a rarity,” Palmer said. “There will always be a premium on organic milk because it is low yield and costs more to make. We are a small fish in a very large pond, but are hoping the research can benefit market growth further.”

Palmer added that the last two weeks had seen “massive sales growth”, which she attributed to children returning to school following their summer break.

Yeo Valley, a key UK organic dairy brand, last week announced it was forming a partnership with OMSCo to focus marketing on its organic milk ranges, starting this month. “Organic milk is now one of the fastest growing parts of the dairy business and OMSCo and ourselves are going to focus on building the Yeo Valley milk brand,” said Ben Cull, Yeo Valley’s marketing director. Any news of companies focusing on the production of organic milk will be welcomed by OMSCo, which saw demand for organic milk exceed supply at times last year.

The Soil Association welcomed OMSCo’s findings during its fortnight-long campaign to highlight the importance of organic and natural foods. “These findings are very significant even though there have been a number of studies in the past, this has been published in a major international journal and peer-reviewed,” said Soil Association spokesperson Michael Green.

However, the association seems cautious about how the FSA will react to OMSCo’s findings, having experienced a few run-ins with the agency in the past.

Green was forthright in expressing reservations about how the FSA had approached organic research. “We hope that the FSA is going to start taking a more evidence-based stance on organic food,” he told just-food. “They have been criticised in the past for not being as impartial as they could have been about organic food. We have been disappointed at their opposition towards organic food and pro-GM approach in the past, but we are hoping now that they will be a bit more open-minded, look at the science, and act accordingly. These findings confirm what organic producers have been saying for six years, that if we produce food in a natural way then it will produce healthy food and healthy people.”

The Soil Association is hopeful that the appointment of Dame Deidre Hutton as FSA chair in March may lead to a less sceptical approach at the agency.

For its part, the FSA stressed that a “healthy” product does not automatically translate to health benefits in the consumer. Such a link has also to be proved. While scientists may have shown that there is a substantial amount more omega-3 in organic milk, this may not be conducive to nutritional benefits inside the human body.

“We are aware that there is a difference in nutritional profile, which does not necessarily mean there is a difference in nutritional value,” an FSA spokesperson explained. “We have got to take care when drawing conclusions to the nutritional value of organic milk. We base our position on scientific evidence so it is not a case of being ‘for or against’. Our duty is that consumers have accurate information for them to make their own choices and make sure they have information on which to base their decisions.”

What is clear is that one of the most significant challenges facing organic producers is the substantial price premium over conventional foods, and the greater emphasis now being placed on active health benefits could be seen, in marketing terms, as a further critical enhancement of the organic proposition, as manufacturers seek to justify their significantly higher prices to consumers.