Can Eating Organic Cut Your Cancer Risk?

For people who spend the extra dollar buying organic produce, meats and dairy products, forking over the money is well worth it.  There’s a general feeling, if not necessarily hard evidence, that eating organic is better for one’s health.

A large French study, recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, may confirm that belief for the faithful. Led by an epidemiologist at Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale in France, researchers found that those who ate more organic foods had 25 percent fewer cancer diagnoses in general, with the steepest drop offs found in lymphomas and postmenopausal breast cancer.

But before you make a dash for the organic produce aisle, consider this: A commentary accompanying the study expressed caution with interpreting the results, pointing out that participants were not tested for actual pesticide residue levels so there was no way to validate exposure levels. While organic food is grown without antibiotics, hormones, and most conventional pesticides and fertilizers, some organic produce has been shown to contain low but detectable levels of pesticide residue, either because of organic farming-approved pesticides or because of airborne particles from nearby conventional farms.

The pesticide omission makes many healthcare experts, including dietitians, as cautious as the authors of the published JAMA editorial. “This is a small step and more research needs to be done on the subject,” said Lesley Klein, a clinical oncology dietitian and the clinical nutrition manager for Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I’m not aware of any other studies that confirm this [the findings].”

Pesticides, Klein says, remains one of the top bugaboos of health-conscious eaters — and for good reason. In some studies, high exposure to these chemicals appeared to cause a variety of ailments, from nausea and abdominal pain to anxiety and confusion, respiratory problems, skin conditions, miscarriage, birth defects, even cancer and neurological issues.

Choose organic produce wisely to avoid breaking the bank

Foodies, however, can take heart. Klein has a practical and affordable solution for the dilemma of pesticides, one she suggests to her cancer patients: Wash and scrub your fruit and vegetables. She mixes her own concoction of equal parts vinegar and water and sprays her produce thoroughly before rinsing it again. Other consumers soak their produce for about 15 minutes in baking soda mixed with water.

Klein has a practical and affordable solution for the dilemma of pesticides, one she suggests to her cancer patients: Wash and scrub your fruit and vegetables.

She also points out that consumers, who might balk at paying the higher prices for organic food, can still make healthy choices by being selective in their purchases. The Environmental Working Group issues The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen lists, which catalog what fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residue and which are the cleanest.

“Pick two or three of the fruits you like and eat more of and buy those organic,” Klein says. “You can start slow.”

In the 2018 report, the group found that 70 percent of conventionally grown produce contained up to 230 different pesticides or their breakdown products. Strawberries and spinach topped the dirty dozen list, with one sample of the plump red fruit testing positive for 20 different pesticides and the leafy green containing almost twice the pesticide residue than other produce. Those two items are followed by nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers.

The Clean Fifteen are: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papaya, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwi, cantaloupes, cauliflower, and broccoli.

Though the French study did not gauge pesticide exposure, it still provided plenty of support for organic food fans. It followed the diets of almost 70,000 French adults, three-quarters of them women in their mid-40s, on average. These volunteers were asked to provide detailed information about how often they ate 16 types of organic foods, from meat, fish and eggs, fruits and vegetables, dairy and soy products, even grains, legumes and drinks such as wine, coffee and teas. In addition, participants were asked about other factors that could influence their general health, including education, occupation, income, alcohol use, physical activity, smoking habits, and family health history. Researchers then adjusted for these factors.

The idea, Klein explained, was to level the playing field. “Traditionally people who consume organic food are more health conscious. They’re probably already eating a lot of plant food, and they can afford to pay extra for organic.” Organic food consumers also tend to be better educated.

Even so, French researchers were surprised by the findings: There were 76 percent fewer cases of lymphomas, 86 percent fewer of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, and 34 percent fewer of breast cancers after menopause for the most frequent eaters of organic food. However, as the lead study author pointed out, this doesn’t prove — it only suggests — that an organic diet causes a reduction in cancers.

While eating organic is assumed to be the healthy choice, the higher prices can discourage consumers. Klein offers alternatives: Eat more fruits and vegetables in general, even those conventionally grown.  Also limit refined grains, processed meat and added sugars.

What’s more, look beyond the dinner table. Exercise. Destress. Get enough sleep. “It’s not just about eating organic,” Klein concludes. “It’s also about how much overall do you care about your health. If you eat organic and then eat red meat every day, that’s not going to be healthy.”


Ana Veciana Suarez
Ana Vecina-Suarez, Guest Columnist
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami HeraldThe Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.