The People's Perspective on Medicine

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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I’m still trying to work out which fruits and veggies can be cleaned using the various methods for doing so… vs which ones have “taken in” the pesticides during the growth process and thus the pesticides are residing inside them and cannot be washed off! I’ve heard both things about various fruits/veggies and therefore am still confused. But to be safe I mainly eat organic.

Wash your fruits and vegetables. Avoid fresh berries. The frozen berries are washed quickly frozen after picking. Most berries are sprayed with anti fungal solutions. I don’t really give much credence to the study. Wash your fruit and veggies.

Is it surprising to anyone that pesticides, which are toxic and carcinogenic, are not good to consume?

I have eaten organic food and am mostly vegetarian for 30 years. In 2006 and 2008 I had cancers with surgeries and radiation. My grandmother lived on an organic farm, no chemicals used and she died of breast cancer at ago 61. Her mother and two brothers died of oral cancer. Cancer has many causes, not just petrochemicals. It is wishful thinking to believe organic food lessens risk of cancer. Of course it is possible, but no proof exists. Genetics, environment, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise and bad luck all play a part.

While I have no problem believing that I have less cancer risk because I eat mostly organics, I know that many other things I do or do not do reduce my cancer risk. That is probably true for many organic eaters including the French in the study.

Americans of a certain age might remember the book, ‘The Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson. Published in the early 1960s, it warned against the chemicals that the USDA approved to spray right across the plains of the US. Environmental pollution is seen as causing many disruptors in our bodies, causing many health issues. Industrial agriculture is giving the US cheap food but also a cheap life-span. In France, not only do they have an excellent health system, but the health of the country is based too on the food they eat and the soil that isn’t contaminated by chemicals. Sure, chemicals are used in some major corporate crops but where I live, it’s a ‘no GMO, no pesticide’ department. Also, the European Union does not allow US foods/agricultural junk, in.

People who eat organic have a healthier lifestyle overall. That confounds the conclusions.

I think this finding is coincidental because people who buy organic food generally have healthier lifestyles and lower rates of cancer. They do not smoke, drink excessively, eat processed, sugary, fatty foods and are not obese. They generally exercise more and are better educated. This study jumps to conclusions in my opinion.

While 6 cases in 1000 may be statistically significant in a study, it hardly seems convincing to go for the more expensive organic foods. On that basis. I guessing you would be exposed to many more carcinogens driving in traffic every day. It might be worthwhile for those who know they have a higher risk due to family history and genetics. But to someone who is predisposed genetically to breast cancer, it may not make any difference.

How about comparing the same populations in Europe vs. the US. European foods are non-GMO, while Americans have the GMO, such as glycosate (Roundup) in their genetic makeup?

My thoughts are only “observational” as well, but I have often wondered if the high levels of birth defects, cancer, transgender children, etc. are a result of the overwhelming use of pesticides up and down our food chain.

Yes, price is certainly a concern. However, recent changes in how people garden (no till, container, permaculture, etc.) have changed how easy it is to grow (at least) some of your own food, and organically! Fruit trees, bushes and vines are very easy to grow if you have even a small yard and a little sun, and organic greens are also. The greens and even some fruits can be grown in containers if you have a small apartment balcony, or even a sunny window or an artificial light source. Believe me, folks, it’s worth the space and the small amount of time you must invest! Once established, a garden should only take about 15 minutes a day of your time!

We are in the stone age of discovery as to what diseases are caused by environment, mutations or virus. Our food has definitely become a factor as it is infiltrated by pesticides etc. So is our air and water. Too many diseases continue to have no discovered cause or treatment. The current corporate dictates are not interested in Humanity’s health, only profit. And so, we victims may strive to stay healthy, but it has become a game of chance.

Agreed that EWG “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” are useful guides in choosing produce. As is knowing your farmer. Multiple fruits and veggies can be produced small scale and locally with no pesticide sprays. Ask around. As a teacher one of my labs require students to purchase all major ingredients locally, for a meal they cook and share, and interview at least one farmer. Students routinely then write how affordable many local foods are, and even when higher, the chance to meet the farmer and even visit their farm, it’s worth the price to build these relationships, to connect in our community, building social capital.

As a certified organic farmer, who sells to local customers:

A fellow orchardist, when offering a workshop on growing backyard fruit, noted that his vehicle routinely was the oldest in the parking lot. And the homes where he planted and pruned trees, the cost of those homes mostly well above his own. These folks are used to paying for excellence in other areas of life; organic produce would be a relatively small portion of the mix.

From my int’l travels, many other cultures spend higher % of income on food. And also eat higher amounts of fruits and veggies, organic or not, as part of their food cultures. Repeated epidemiological work confirms that diets rich in fruits and veggies lower the major diseases of the ‘more developed’ world.

Which parts of the food industry control each of us? If we are paying to drink any liquids, we could be buying fresh produce, and even some organics. On certain items, organic produce is comparable in cost, or a bit more. Check it out in a large grocery, talk with the produce manager for guidance and thank them when they offer organics. It’s about considering our priorities, of pushing back against the ads and ease of processed food and drink. Who’s in control of our life and the foods we choose?

Consumer Reports published a finding that soaking non-organic fruits in a solution of baking soda (1T/liter as I recall) for 20 min. reduced the pesticide burden. Follow up please.

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