Fast Take: Going Organic for Cancer Prevention?

Many of us opt to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables as a part of building a healthy lifestyle. While many of us still do not consume as many fruits and veggies as we should, we have likely all been taught that these types of foods are good for us. But social media chatter and news stories informing consumers about supposed “dangers lurking” in conventionally grown produce or the “nutritional superiority” of organically grown produce can often leave us wondering if we received good advice.

The Study Rundown

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that a diet high in organic produce and low in their conventionally grown counterparts, lowers one’s risk for certain types of cancer. In this population-based prospective cohort study (read more about study design here) among 68,946 French adults, organic food consumption frequency and dietary intake was collected. While the conclusion of the study notes that the “results need to be confirmed,” it does determine that consumption of organic produce could help prevent cancer.

For some added context on this study, JAMA Internal Medicine also posted a commentary article on the research noting, “While the study by Baudry et al has several notable strengths, such as its large sample size, prospective design, and modest loss to follow-up, it also has significant weaknesses, which mandate careful interpretation of the findings. Most salient among the weaknesses is the fact that the organic food questionnaire was not validated; therefore, it is unclear what the intended exposure, organic food consumption, was actually measuring.”

In addition to this statement, the commentary also notes some other very important points that highlight additional limitations of this study:

  • The peer-reviewed body of evidence does not indicate that there are any negative health impacts associated with conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Relatedly, there is no body of evidence indicating that is better for one’s health to eat more organically grown produce or a subset of conventionally grown produce that may have fewer pesticide residues on them.  
  • This study did not carefully control for confounders (outside factors other than organic food consumption that could attribute to positive health outcomes).

The commentary concluded, “At the current stage of research, the relationship between organic food consumption and cancer risk is still unclear.” The authors also affirm more research should be done to effectively gather data on organic food consumption and associated cancer risk impacts.

Never Fear the Produce Aisle

All of us should try to make purchase choices that give us a well-balanced intake of fruits and vegetables— organic or conventional. Many previously published studies have demonstrated that organic produce does not have a nutritional or safety advantage over conventional produce, and organic produce is not associated with better protection from chronic conditions like cancer or cardiovascular disease.

Whether you prefer to eat organic or conventional produce, you are choosing a safe and healthy way to access fruits and vegetables. Both conventionally grown and organic produce use pesticides to protect crops from pests. The list of pesticides that can be used for organic produce is different than for conventional, but they are all made up of federally regulated compounds that are designed to kill or repel insects and other pests. This means that these substances are designed to rid foods of pests, but are also intended to be a part of our food supply chain system to ultimately yield food we can safely consume after harvesting.

People who are told that organic is healthier and safer for them may lack access or enough money to purchase organic produce. According to a study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, dietary messages where people are made to believe that organic fruits and vegetables are healthier can lead to poor health outcomes.

Cutting to the Chase

We agree that there certainly are healthy lifestyle choices that can be made in order to lower one’s cancer risk, including eating a healthy diet. The commentary article notes, “…there is compelling evidence that improving other factors, such as body weight, physical activity, and diet, can lower cancer risk.” Additionally, we concur with the commentary authors that assert that any “risks” that could be associated with the consumption of conventionally grown produce are far outweighed by the health benefits that come with making sure to eat a balanced diet that includes them.

Bottom line: Our overall eating pattern matters the most when assessing healthy diet outcomes. Instead of being afraid of foods, we should build an eating style that encompasses all fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein and unsaturated fats.

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