Eating Organic Foods Can Cut Cancer Risk

Eating organic food can cut your cancer risk, a study out of JAMA Internal Medicine finds.

Organic food has long been said to be a healthier alternative to non-organic foods, but researchers have been hard-pressed until now to really quantify those results.

For example, a study in 2014 studied organic food’s effect on cancer risk, and found it had little to no effect, except possibly for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other research has also linked non-Hodgkin lymphoma to three pesticides in particular: glyphosate, malathion, and diazinon.

However, this new study found that when organic food was the primary part of a participant’s diet and eaten frequently, cancer risk decreased overall — for some cancers more than others.

How Organic Food Is Classified

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Organic produce is classified by farmers and manufacturers as being produced without synthetic fertilizers, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), or pesticides. According to the USDA, the soil on which the produce grows must have gone without any of those treatments for three years before they’re harvested.

It’s important to note that its synthetic pesticides that are barred from being used. Natural pesticides are allowed, and typically contain non-manmade ingredients like soaps, lime sulfur, and hydrogen peroxide. In addition, terms such as “free-range,” “hormone-free,” and “natural” do not indicate that the product is organic.

Organic meat means animals are fed 100% organic food, are not given antibiotics or hormones, and are raised in living spaces that mimic their natural environments.

The French Study

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A team of researchers led by Julia Baudry, an epidemiologist at Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale in France, studied the diets of 68,946 adult French volunteers. The participants of the study were pulled from the French NutriNet-Santé cohort, which is a huge and ongoing study identifying relationships between health and the food we eat.

The study participants looked at 16 products and noted whether they consumed the organic food never, occasionally, or most of the time. Each food had an “organic food score” between 0 and 32 points. The organic products included fruits and vegetables, organically-raised meat and fish, ready-to-eat meals, oils and condiments, dietary supplements, and other foods. On three days chosen at random, participants also kept a 24-hour food log. Researchers followed up with the participants for an average duration of 4.5 years, between May 10, 2009, and November 30, 2016.

During this time, there were 1,340 new diagnoses of cancer. The participants who ate the most organic foods, however, were 25% less likely to develop cancer overall. They were 73% less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and 21% less likely to develop post-menopausal breast cancer.


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Studying the effect of food on health is tricky. It’s largely self-reported and there are countless different variables at play. People who tend to eat organic are typically people who tend to be more conscious of their health in general, so it’s hard to determine if their lowered cancer risk is simply based on diet alone.

In addition, pesticide residue levels were not even measured in any of the participants.

“From a practical point of view, the results are still preliminary, and not sufficient to change dietary recommendations about cancer prevention,” said Dr. Frank B. Hu, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

However, eating more fruits and vegetables in general and steering toward organic when possible will do more good than harm.

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