Pamela Malo, MHS, RD, Arivale Coach
One way to potentially reduce your exposure to pesticides – which have been linked to increased risk of developing cancer – is to consume organic food. As a simplified definition, organic produce is grown without the use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms. Organic meat comes from animals fed organic food without the use of hormones or antibiotics.
While organic foods are less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional foods, few studies have examined the association of organic food consumption with cancer risk.
A study published last month in JAMA Internal Medicine and covered by the New York Times sought to answer this question by investigating the association between organic food consumption and the risk of cancer in a large population of French adults.
Nearly 69,000 French volunteers participated in this study (78 percent female with an average age of 44). They provided information on how often they eat 16 types of organic products, such as fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat and fish, and grains. Each participant was given an “organic food score,” where a higher score indicates higher frequency of organic food consumption.
Over the course of follow-ups from 2009 to 2016, 1,340 participants developed cancer, with the most prevalent cancers being breast, prostate, skin cancers, colorectal, non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and other lymphomas.
After accounting for other potential cancer risk factors that could also be associated with organic food consumption – such as age, sex, income, smoking status, overall diet quality, and physical activity – the researchers found the quarter of participants with the highest organic food scores had a 25 percent reduced risk of overall cancer when compared to the quarter of participants with the lowest organic food scores (relative risk). However, this amounts to just a 0.6 percent reduction in overall cancer risk in general (absolute risk).
When looking by cancer type, a higher organic food score was associated with a decreased risk of developing postmenopausal breast cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and all other lymphomas; no associations were identified for other types of cancer.
The researchers conclude that while this study’s findings need confirmation, “promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer.”
Despite the study’s findings, much remains unclear regarding organic foods’ potential to help prevent cancer development due to some considerable limitations to this study:
- Organic foods typically cost more, and those willing and able to pay to purchase them are likely more health-conscious than those who do not. While the researchers accounted for factors like income, diet quality, and physical activity, such health-conscientiousness manifests itself many other ways that can’t be accounted for in analyses. Therefore, it’s possible the association seen between organic food consumption and lowered cancer risk is driven by other behaviors beyond or in addition to organic food consumption itself.
- The organic food questionnaire used in this study was not validated, meaning it’s unclear if the questionnaire actually accurately measured frequency of organic food consumption. Were those who scored higher on the questionnaire actually consuming organic food more frequently than those that scored lower?
- The researchers postulate that higher self-reported intake of organic foods serves as a measure for lower exposure to pesticide residues from food. However, there’s no hard evidence that this is the case for this specific study.
- The findings from this study are unfortunately not widely generalizable. The research was based on volunteers from France who were “likely particularly health-conscious individuals,” according to the researchers.
In summary, while the relationship between organic food consumption and cancer risk remains unclear, there is persuasive evidence that other factors – such as maintaining a healthy body weight, getting enough physical activity, and consuming lots of fruits and vegetables (conventional or organic) – can reduce cancer risk.
Current recommendations should continue to focus on improving these diet and lifestyle factors that are backed by solid evidence. It’s especially critical that fears or concerns over pesticides should not discourage intake of conventional fruits and vegetables, especially since organic produce is typically pricier and less accessible.
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[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]