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Are Organic Food Enthusiasts Protected from Cancer?

People who eat organic food more often are less likely to come down with cancer, according to a big French study.

French scientists have added a new entry to the long-running debate over organic food. Some previous research has focused primarily on whether organic food is more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. In 2012, for example, scientists at Stanford University reviewed 17 studies and concluded organic foods are no more nutritious (Annals of Internal Medicine, Sept. 4, 2012). They did confirm, however, that organically grown food has lower levels of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Proponents counter that some aspects of organic farming such as phytonutrient levels and impact on the environment were not covered in these studies.

As one visitor, VS, noted:

“I don’t buy organic apples because I think they have more vitamin C. I buy them because they won’t give me the big C! The idea is that these pesticides in produce may cause cancer or other health problems in people sometime down the road and that’s what I want to avoid for me and my family.”

Does Eating Organic Food Reduce the Risk of Cancer?

In a seven-year study, more than 68,000 French adults told researchers about their diets (JAMA Internal Medicine, online Oct. 22, 2018). Those who consumed organic food most often were 25 percent less likely to be diagnosed with cancer during the study. That works out to a difference of 6 cases per 1,000 people.

Participants reported more than 1,300 initial cancer cases between 2009 and 2016. In particular, organic food consumers were significantly less likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The investigators hypothesize that lower burdens of pesticides in the organically grown foods might contribute to this effect.

What Is the Strength of the Study?

The study is observational, so it doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Moreover, the researchers admit that “high prices are a major obstacle for buying organic foods.” Consequently, critics worry that people will forego eating adequate fruits and vegetables just because they can’t afford to buy organic. Nonetheless, the study was large and lasted a relatively long time, with careful assessment of the health outcomes.

As a result, the investigators conclude:

“Although the study findings need to be confirmed, promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer.”

To learn more about which foods are less likely to contain pesticides, you may want to check on the EWG Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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