Is Organic More Cancer-Protective? (And … Does it Matter?)

A study by researchers at Stanford University which appeared in Monday’s issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine hit on one of the biggest hot-button issues in nutrition today: organic foods, and their merits. Much of the media coverage has centered on what this large study says about the relative benefits of organic vs. conventionally grown foods in human health.

But that’s not what this study is really about. In fact, only 17 of the 240 studies examined by the researchers involved humans at all (the rest examined the nutrient profiles and pesticide levels of various foods). And of those 17, only 3 involved human health outcomes (eczema, wheezing and atopy, or “hyperallergenic” reactions). And any conclusions about the nutrient profiles of various foods will always be hampered by the fact that, as this NPR piece points out, the profiles of any two tomatoes sitting in the same pile in your grocery’s produce aisle will vary widely, for a host of reasons, regardless of whether they’re organic or conventional.

So it’s not quite the slam-dunk “Organics Are Not Healthier For You!” study some in the media are portraying it to be. It’s simply a serious analysis of the available literature, and it should be welcomed.

After the jump, some key findings of Monday’s study — and a call for cooler heads.

1. There is not sufficient evidence to support a claim that organic food is higher in vitamins, minerals or other nutrients than non-organically grown food.

2. The authors did report finding more phenols in organic produce. These are plant chemicals that are widely studied for cancer-protective and other health benefits.

3. The few studies on omega-3 fatty acid content showed higher levels in organic milk and chicken.

4. Conventional vegetables and fruit had higher risk for pesticide contamination than organic, but even the conventional levels fell below limits set by the US government.

5. There was no difference with respect to risk for bacterial contamination between organic and conventionally grown foods.

6. Organic chicken and pork has less contamination from bacteria that resists antibiotics than conventional products.

What About Organics and Cancer Protection?

Keep in mind that it’s only relatively recently that scientists who design the studies that track the human diet and disease risk started to distinguish between organic and conventional foods. And because cancer, for example, can take decades to form, it will be years before those studies start yielding data strong enough to identify the effect of organic vs. conventional foods on cancer risk.

So to organic advocates looking for conclusive proof that organics are more cancer-protective — and to pesticide manufacturers eager to dismiss the health benefits of organics — we can only say: The science simply isn’t there yet. Don’t take media coverage of one study as proof of the presence or absence of a connection. Wait and see.

But there are things we do know for certain, today, about diet and cancer, thanks to decades of research that has already come in:

1. Diets high in plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans) can and do lower cancer risk, specifically cancers of the colorectum, stomach, esophagus, prostate, mouth/pharynx and larynx, and lung.

2. Farm workers who spend their days exposed to high levels of pesticides have a higher risk of cancer than the rest of the population.

So … Does It Matter?

Overlooked in much of the media coverage is the fact that most people who choose organic foods do so because of what’s NOT in them, not what IS. Many of these people are aware that the US government regulates the amount of pesticides used in conventional growing practices, but personally believe government allowances are too high, and choose to spend more money if it allows them to expose themselves and their family to as little pesticide residue as possible.

People choose organics for a host of other reasons as well, including issues related to land use, sustainability, workers’ safety, and a desire to buy locally-grown foods. These are reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not a given organic sweet potato contains more beta-carotene than one that has been conventionally grown.

The ongoing fight over the relative nutritional merits of organic vs. conventional foods isn’t going away. And it will take years for conclusive findings on such a complex and emotionally charged issue to come to light. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to cool the rhetoric on both sides and embrace what we know:

Plant foods are good. We should eat more of them than we do now.┬áSo get them however you wish – fresh, frozen, canned, organic or conventional – but get them.


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