Organic milk cuts eczema in children and boosts breast milk

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By: Soil Association

A newly published scientific study shows that the incidence of eczema in infants fed on organic dairy products, and whose mothers also consumed organic dairy products, is 36% lower than in children who consume conventional dairy products. [1] [2]

Whilst there is a significant body of evidence showing that organic food contains higher levels of beneficial nutrients than non-organic foods [3], this is the first example of a definite health impact (i.e. isolated from other potential beneficial factors) of organic food consumption being published in a peer reviewed journal.

Whilst the study confirms it is organic dairy consumption that protects against the development of eczema, the scientists could only hypothesise as to the mechanism which delivered this protection. Their hypothesis follows the established facts of increased levels of the beneficial conjugated linoleic acid isomers (CLA) [4] found in milk from organically managed cows. A separate recent study [5] confirms that higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids are not only found in cows’ milk but also in the breast milk of women consuming organic milk. This therefore underpins the hypothesis that the higher levels of CLAs in the breast milk of organic milk drinking mothers are a key mechanism in reducing eczema, as well as the organic dairy diet of the infants themselves.

Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director said:
"The first peer reviewed scientific paper showing a significant health benefit from eating organic food is a major landmark. But the scientists' findings of over a third fewer cases of eczema among children fits in with the experience of many people who eat organic food. Given the strong evidence that organic has more beneficial nutrients, and the absence of harmful additives, common sense suggests that organic food is better for your health. It's good to see this starting to be confirmed by scientific research. These studies add to the body of evidence showing that the Food Standards Agency’s stance on organic food is out of date."[6]

Professor Carlo Leifert, at Newcastle University, leader of the EU's 80m euro Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project, said:
"The Louis Bolk Institute together with medical schools in the Netherlands and the UK has published data which show that the composition differences between organic and conventional milk (as shown by the results from the QLIF project and other published studies) translate into higher levels of CLA in human breast milk and lower incidence eczema in infants. This is the first example of a definite health impact of organic food consumption being published in a peer reviewed journal."


For further information please contact:
Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director: / 07740 951 066
Professor Carlo Leifert, EU QLIF project: / 01661 830 222
Lucy P.L. van de Vijver, PhD, Lois Bolk Institute: / + 31 343 523872 /

Notes to editors:

[1] Consumption of organic foods and risk of atopic disease during the first 2 years of life in the Netherlands, Louis Bolk Institute Department of Health Care and Nutrition, Driebergen, the Netherlands. Ischa Kummeling, Carel Thijs, Machteld Huber, Lucy P. L. van de Vijver, Bianca E. P. Snijders, John Penders, Foekje Stelma, Ronald van Ree, Piet A. van den Brandt and Pieter C. Dagnelie.
Published in British Journal of Nutrition (2007).

The research was carried out by the Louis Bolk Institute and the Department of Epidemiology, Care and Public Health Research Institute (Caphri), Maastricht University, Maastricht, the Netherlands in association with a number of other medical schools:; Respiratory Epidemiology and Public Health Group, National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, London, UK; Department of Epidemiology, Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute Maastricht (NUTRIM), Maastricht University, PO Box 616, 6200 MD, Maastricht, the Netherlands, Department of Medical Microbiology, University Hospital of Maastricht, Maastricht, the Netherlands; Department of Experimental Immunology, Academic Medical Center, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

[2] Allergic atopic reactions to food, pollen and pollutants including eczema, hay-fever like symptoms and asthma, have increased world-wide, especially in children in developed countries. Atopic means an allergenic hypersensitivity attaching to parts of the body not in direct contact with the allergen. i.e. you eat something that then causes a reaction on the skin, such as eczema. Currently one-third of the children in Western societies show symptoms.

[3] Additional studies showing nutritional differences in and/or linking health benefits to an organic diet:
Studies from Sweden published in the Lancet in 1999 found that eczema, allergies and asthma were lower in children from anthroposophic families (following biodynamic principles and practices, inspired by the work of Rudolph Steiner) than in children from other families, but the lifestyle factors associated with anthroposophy were not separately isolated and identified as the causes, these included lower use of antibiotics, a longer period being breast fed, less use of aspirin, as well as an organic diet.
Atopy in children of families with an anthroposophic lifestyle
Johan S Alm, Jackie Swartz, Gunnar Lilja, Annika Scheynius, Göran Pershagen
THE LANCET • Vol 353 • May 1, 1999

A later 2006 study of Steiner school children (published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) also found that children with a diet mainly based on biodynamic/organic food had a reduced risk of all studied health outcomes compared with the reference group, but the sample design did not allow for this to be confirmed for those eating organic food.
Allergic disease and sensitization in Steiner school children.

Helen Floistrup, MSc, Jackie Swartz, MD, Anna Bergstrom, PhD, Johan S. Alm, MD, PhD, Annika Scheynius, MD, PhD, Marianne van Hage, MD, PhD, Marco Waser, PhD, Charlotte Braun-Fahrlander, MD, Dieneke Schram-Bijkerk, MSc, Machteld Huber, MD, Anne Zutavern, MD, Erika von Mutius, MD, Ellen Ublagger, MD, Josef Riedler, MD, PhD, Karin B. Michaels, ScD, PhD, Goran Pershagen, MD, PhD, and the PARSIFAL Study Groupo Stockholm and Jarna, Sweden, Basel, Switzerland, Utrecht and Driebergen, The Netherlands, Munich
and Schwarzach, Germany, Salzburg, Austria, and Boston, Mass

Three recent EU studies show higher nutritional values, all three studies were published on this webpage:

In 2006, the Journal of Dairy Science published the results of a three-year study showing a direct link between the whole organic farming system and higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in organic milk. The study by the Universities of Liverpool and Glasgow, was the first to consider a cross-section of UK farms over a 12-month production cycle. According to the research, a pint of organic milk contains on average 68.2% more total Omega 3 fatty acids than non-organic milk and has a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids, believed to be beneficial to human health.
Ellis K, G Innocent, D Grove-White, P Cripps, W G McLean, C V Howard and M Mihm (2006) Comparing the Fatty Acid Composition of Organic and Conventional Milk. J. Dairy Sci., 89: 1938:1950

Earlier research conducted by the University of Aberdeen and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research also found that organically reared cows, which eat high levels of fresh grass, clover pasture and grass clover silage, produced milk that contains higher levels of omega 3 essential fatty acids.

In total, five studies have now shown that organic milk has more beneficial levels of several nutrients than non-organic milk including omega-3 essential fatty acid, Vitamin E and beta-carotene.

In 2001, the Soil Association commissioned a review of over 400 scientific papers by an independent nutritionist, which found indicative evidence of nutritional differences between organic and non-organic food – including higher levels of Vitamin C, minerals and trace elements.
Organic farming, food quality and human health, A review of the evidence. Soil Association, 2000 ISBN 0 905200 80 2

[4] Conjugated Linoleic Acids are currently receiving much attention in nutritional research, as experimental evidence suggests these fatty acids might have anti-carcinogenic, anti-atherosclerotic, anti-diabetic and immune-modulating effects, as well as a favourable influence on body fat composition, i.e. on the proportion of fat tissue to muscle mass.

[5] Influence of organic diet on the amount of conjugated linoleic acids in breast milk of lactating women in the Netherlands.
Lukas Rist, Andre´ Mueller, Christiane Barthel, Bianca Snijders, Margje Jansen, A. Paula Simoes-Wust, Machteld Huber, Ischa Kummeling, Ursula von Mandach, Hans Steinhart and Carel Thijs.
British Journal of Nutrition (2007), 97, 735–743

[6] Recent statements from the FSA disputing the nutritional differences between and benefits of organic compared to non-organic food:

Current statements re: organic food on Food Standards Agency website:
‘Is organic food and milk more nutritious? Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view.’

Dr Alison Spalding, FSA organic food scientist:
‘The agency’s view is that organic food is not significantly different in terms of safety or nutrition from food produced conventionally.’
Sunday Express (21 Jan 2007)

FSA Chief Scientist, Andrew Wadge comments on organic tomatoes:
‘The debate about organic food is in the news again today as a long-term Californian study suggests that organically grown tomatoes contain more of two types of flavonoids, quercetin and kaempferol. …we recognise the important role organic food plays in providing choice for consumers, and we will need to consider this new study in the light of all the other scientific evidence which, on balance, doesn’t support the view that organic food is more nutritious or safer than conventional foods’. (5 July 2007)

Earlier statements from the FSA and others, including government ministers, questioning the nutritional benefits of organic food:

Sir John Krebs, former chair of the Food Standards Agency:
Appearing on BBC TV in August 2000, Krebs announced that consumers who were buying organic food were 'not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the FSA, if they think they are buying extra nutritional quality or extra nutritional safety, because we don't have the evidence.'

David Miliband, when Secretary of State at Defra:
‘On nutritional benefits, the minister said: “It’s a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isn’t any conclusive evidence either way.” ‘
“It’s [organic is] only 4% of total farm produce, not 40%, and I would not want to say that 96% of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic.”
Sunday Times,7 Jan 2007 - ‘Organic food is no better’

Former Secretary of State for Agriculture, John Gummer MP, co-chair Conservative Quality of Life group:
‘There is nothing scientific about organic food. It is a marketing argument. Their view is an opinion…We mustn’t ask out farmers to do the wrong thing because we haven’t got the right science.”’
Commercial Grower, 1 March 2007.

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