Can Organic Food Really Cut Cancer Risk?

A new study claims that people who eat organic food tend to slash their cancer risk by as much as 25 percent — but what does this study really tell us?

The research, conducted by French scientists using government and public funds, looked at the health data of 68, 946 French adults, the majority of whom were females in their 40s. The study looked at what foods participants were eating and how frequently they consumed organic produce.

During the study follow up period, which varied for each participant but extended to around four and a half years for most, there were 1,340 cancer cases. The highest rate was in breast cancer, but prostate cancer, skin cancer, colorectal cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphomas were also statistically significant.

The researchers found that the group who ate the most organic food had 25 percent fewer cancer cases than those who ate the least. That’s a big difference, and the researchers say they were surprised that the figure was so stark. Participants who ate the most organic food were 73 percent less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while they were also 21 percent less likely to develop breast cancer.

These findings are impressive, and they led the researchers to conclude: “A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Although the study findings need to be confirmed, promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer.”

This study is a large-scale and population-representative cohort study. It is reasonably well designed and appears to give us some valuable insights into something surrounding the potential health benefits of people adopting an organic diet. You’ll notice I specifically did not say “eating organic” and that’s for one major reason:

The study does not prove that organic food cuts cancer risk.

Sadly, while the study is impressive in scope it cannot say that organic food cuts cancer rates.

While the researchers did find that even people who ate less healthily but still consumed some organic products tended to have lower levels of cancer, the research does not prove it is organic produce that is providing this benefit. Rather, it demonstrates that people who are diet-conscious enough to have chosen organic over non-organic appear to be ahead of the game in terms of cancer prevention.

That’s not such a shocker. We know that these kinds of habits rarely happen in a vacuum, so it’s likely that people who choose organic are more conscious of their overall health and are taking steps—like eating a wide variety of fruit and veg and exercising—to maximize their well-being. Those habits definitely offer cancer protection, but that’s not necessarily the organic food itself, rather the part it might play in an overall healthy lifestyle.

That said, one other large-scale study that looked at organic food in this way found no meaningful reduction in cancer rates overall except for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That finding means this latest research may in fact be on to something, but it does not confirm it.

For argument’s sake, let’s say we were to buy in to organic food cutting cancer risk. If it does, and that is a big “if”, it’s probably not because of the nutritional profile of the food, which studies have tended to show is comparable to conventional produce. Rather, the most likely culprit would be pesticides. Even there, though, we have to be careful with our conclusions.

Testing for Pesticide Levels and How They Link to Cancer

Other research has speculated that organic produce may be better for us because, by its nature, it should shun the majority of pesticides. Research  has corroborated that people who eat organic tend to have lower levels of pesticides in their urine. But there’s a big piece of the puzzle missing here: we have yet to directly link trace elements of pesticides in our food to an increased risk of cancer.

Farming groups that support pesticides point to decades of studies that say pesticides are safe and that actual exposure for the public is low. Indeed, there is a large body of independent research to corroborate that in trace amounts pesticides and synthetic fertilizers pose no risk to human health and, crucially for our purposes, are not actively cancer-causing.

If you sense a but, you would be right.

It’s critical to acknowledge the above, however, some researchers have flagged that those past studies have one major blind spot: how common pesticide use is now. Few studies have looked at pesticide exposure at the rate that we currently experience it, so while exposure to the very, very small level of pesticides in each single item of produce we consume is almost definitely safe, we have yet to understand the cumulative effects of our now-ubiquitous pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use.

For example, the World Health Organisation notes that cumulative exposures for children in rural areas actually exceed the safety limits the World Health Organisation sets for pesticides, meaning that exposure through diet and through things like water contamination is something we have to be mindful of. At the very least, we know that at the most extreme levels of exposure faced by rural communities, health problems do go up.

Clearly, there needs to be more research into this very important topic. The major takeaway at this stage for us as consumers, however, is probably something we already know: eating a healthy and balanced diet and being conscious of our choices–whether that means eating organic food or not–is likely going to cut our cancer risk. The jury may still be out on the benefits of organic food as a cancer prevention tool, but a healthy diet has a proven track record.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

93 comments

John W
John W5 days ago

TYFST

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Janis K
Janis K5 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Andrea M
Aa M8 days ago

Be safe and watch what you eat

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Katharina F
Katharina F9 days ago

the only way to avoid poisons to the body

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Ann B
Ann B10 days ago

noted

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L12 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Salla T
Salla Tuu17 days ago

Ty.

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rachel r
Past Member 17 days ago

Thank you!

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Amparo Fabiana Chepote
Amparo Fabiana C18 days ago

Thanks, eat more plant based and fresh veggies and harvest. Don't let it in the fridge more than two days.

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Emma L
Emma L19 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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