Does Eating Organic Food Reduce the Risk of Cancer?
The increasing availability of organic foods on the market is attracting interest as well as many questions. A recently published study suggests that organic food consumption is associated with a lower risk of cancer. Are organic foods really better for your health? Let’s look into it!
A prospective study recently published in the reputable JAMA journal looked at the relationship between eating organic foods and the risk for cancer. For the study, 68,946 French adults were followed for about 7 years and reported on how often they consumed organic food in 16 different food types. The researchers found that a more frequent consumption of organic foods was associated with a decrease in cancer risk of about 24%. Another study on the same topic was published in 2014 in the British Journal of Cancer and followed 623,080 British women for 9.3 years. In this study, organic food consumption was associated with a 21% reduction in the risk of Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the lymphatic system) in women who reported consuming organic foods most of the time compared to those who reported they never consumed them. In contrast, the consumption of organic foods was not associated with a reduction in the risk of other types of cancer. Several confounding factors may have influenced the results of these studies. Indeed, the subjects reported consuming organic foods at the beginning of the study, but it is not known whether their consumption of organic food remained stable during the years of follow-up. In addition, the results are based on the fact that self-reported consumption of organic foods is a reliable indicator of pesticide exposure. The studies did not directly measure the level of pesticide detected in the subjects, for example by urine tests.
“Organic”, what does this guarantee?
For food items to be designated as “organic” they must have been grown in an environment free of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers and must not be GMOs. This certification also does not allow the use of hormones and antibiotics. Processed products must not contain artificial flavors, colorants, additives or chemical preservatives. The animals must have been raised in respectful conditions and have been fed organic food.
Buying organic, is it better for your health?
According to a systematic review that included 17 human studies and 223 studies that analyzed levels of contaminants and nutrients in foods, organic fruits and vegetables generally have nutrient concentrations similar to standard agricultural foods, with the exception of phosphorus levels and phenols which are found to be higher in organic foods. In addition, organic produce was found to pose a 30% lower risk of pesticide residues when compared to conventional fruits and vegetables. Therefore, choosing organic foods can reduce our consumption of pesticides, while at the same time helping the health of the planet and farmers by limiting their exposure to pesticides and herbicides.
Some fruits and vegetables are more likely to contain pesticides. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list each year called the Dirty Dozen, which lists the 12 fruits and vegetables the most contaminated by pesticides. It may be worthwhile to opt for the organic version of these fruits and vegetables in particular.
How to know if a food is organic?
In Quebec, the organic designation has been regulated since February 1, 2000. This regulation means that any agricultural food product that identifies itself as “organic”, or any other related term, must meet specific standards, have a biological content of at least 95% and have been certified by an official accreditor by the CARTV (products coming from Quebec) or by the CFIA (products coming from outside Quebec). The presence of a logo is optional. When a company produces or processes foods composed of at least 70% organic ingredients, it may or may not add the certification body’s logo on the label. In Europe, since 2010, all manufacturers of products from organic agriculture must display on their packaging the organic logo of the European Union illustrated by a green leaf.
- Baudry et coll (2018) Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption With Cancer Risk. Findings From the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study. JAMA Intern Med; 178(12):1597-1606.
- Bradbyry et coll (2014) Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer; 110(9): 2321–2326.
- Smith-Spangler et coll (2012) Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med;157(5):348-66.