Is Organic Food Healthier than Conventional Food, Can it Prevent Cancer?
by Laurie Wertich and Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. updated 10/2018
Wander the produce aisle of any grocery store and you’ll be faced with a wide array of choices—organic, conventional, natural, local, and more. With so many options, it can be hard to decipher what the optimal choices are. Do you need organic food—along with its hefty price tag? Recent research has shown that organic food is no more nutritious than conventional food, although it can reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
What is Organic Food?
Organic food is food that is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, and irradiation. In contrast, conventional farming practices employ the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and growth hormones.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program with strict standards that regulate how foods are grown, handled, and processed. Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic.
Study Suggests Organic Food Consumption Linked to Lower Cancer Risk
Doctors from France have reported the results of a study that suggests individuals who consume organic foods at a higher frequency have a lower risk of developing cancer. The study results were published online October 22, 2018, in JAMA Internal Medicine.(1)
To conduct the study, researchers recruited 68,946 French adult volunteers to complete online questionnaires. Participants had an average age of 44.2 years at baseline and 78% were female. Participants were asked about their consumption frequency of organic foods for 16 products. At follow-up, 1340 individuals had cancer. The most common types were breast cancer (459 individuals), prostate cancer (180 individuals), skin cancer (135 individuals), colorectal cancer (99 individuals), non-Hodgkin lymphoma (47 individuals), and other lymphomas (15 individuals).
After controlling for a variety of confounding variables, researchers found that high organic food scores were correlated to a reduced risk of cancer overall (P = .001), with an absolute reduction in risk of 0.6%.
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The study authors acknowledged in the article that although they accounted for a “wide range” of covariates, “the observed associations may have been influenced by residual confounding.”
Is Organic Healthier?
There is a commonly held perception that organic food is better or healthier than conventional food, and the results of the French study seem to offer some evidence. Researchers from Stanford have also performed a comprehensive review of evidence comparing the health effects of organic and conventional foods. Their analysis included 17 studies of populations consuming organic and conventional diets and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally.
The analysis revealed little significant difference in the health effects of organic and conventional foods. There was no consistent difference in the nutrient content of organic foods versus conventional foods, except for one nutrient that was significantly higher in organic food—phosphorous. The researchers noted that this carried little clinical significance since very few people are deficient in phosphorous. The researchers found no difference in the protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk; however, a few studies indicated that organic milk might contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
What About Pesticides?
In terms of pesticide residue, the researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination compared to conventional produce. Two studies compared children who consumed organic and conventional diets and found that the urine of children on organic diets had lower levels of pesticide residues. Individuals who consumed organic chicken and pork appeared to have a lower risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. More research is necessary to determine the clinical significance of these findings.
How Do You Choose?
In short—the curret research appears to indicate that nutrient per nutrient, there is little difference between organic and conventional produce. However, consuming organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and perhaps cancer.
There are a variety of reasons to choose organic, including environmental factors; however, organic food is not definitively “better”—especially if it becomes a limiting factor. It is important to consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic.
- Baudry J, Assmann KE, Touvier M, et al. Association of frequency of organic food consumption with cancer risk [published online October 22, 2018]. JAMA Intern Med. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4357
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunger GE, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: A systematic review. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012; 157(5): 348-366.