Eating organic foods frequently can keep cancer away, new study suggests

Leslie Hanson
October 23, 2018

You can protect yourself from cancer by eating organic, a new study suggests.

Although some previous research suggests that agricultural chemicals may be linked with certain cancers, researchers don't have a clear picture of whether organic foods free of these chemicals can help lower the risk of cancer.

The observational study led by a team of French government scientists tracked the diets of almost 69,000 people. More than three-quarters of the volunteers were women, in their mid-40s on average.

Researchers focused on 16 types of organic products: fruits; vegetables; soy-based products; dairy; meat and fish; eggs; grains and legumes; bread and cereals; flour; vegetable oils and condiments; ready-to-eat meals; coffee and tea; wine; cookies, chocolates and other candies; other foods; and dietary supplements. Now researchers at Paris University have studied 69,000 people who were questioned about their diet and followed for an average of five years, during which 1,340 of them developed cancer.

However, the inverse association between frequent consumption of organic food and cancer risk was confined to postmenopausal breast cancer and all lymphomas including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), they noted inJAMA Internal Medicine.

The quarter of people who ate the most organic food were 25 per cent less likely to get cancer than the quarter who ate the least, even after adjusting for age, class and... Specifically, they were 73% less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and 21% less likely to develop post-menopausal breast cancer.

"Promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer", the authors concluded.

In an accompanying editorial, Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD, and Jorge E. Chavarro, MD, ScD, both of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and colleagues said the study had several strengths, such as its large sample size, prospective design, and modest loss to follow-up. He co-authored a commentary published with the study. Study participants also self-reported their food intake, and such self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate. Yet a growing body of research, including the current study, suggests that pesticides may also pose health risks.

While all organic foods have less contamination with pesticides and other chemicals than conventionally grown foods, "the benefit in terms of reducing exposure is not the same for all foods", Chavarro added. "That is because deciding to eat organic foods or not is a decision that has very strong social and economic determinants. Especially for those items, choosing organics is better for health as well as for the environment".

Chavarro also said it is unclear that quantifying organic food consumption is really calculating what the study authors want to measure - reduced exposure to pesticide residues through diet. "And it would be premature to make organic food consumption recommendations based just on this study".

"It has to be born in mind that an overall healthy nutritionally diet (rich in fruit and vegetables etc.), whatever the farming system (organic or conventional), as well as high physical activity are important documented protective factors against certain cancers and other diseases", lead study author Julia Baudry of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research INSERM in Paris told Reuters. Yet the study does not do a good job of sorting and evaluating these differences, he noted. "And for these 16 foods, we summed up the answers and provided an organic food consumption score after which we examined the association between these organic scores and cancer risk".

In the end, the study's takeaway, according to Chavarro, is that we should all probably be paying more attention to how much organic food we eat and "we should probably be studying this more".

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