Is eating organic food better for reducing my cancer risk?
It’s one of the most asked questions we get – especially now, with a new review of the research suggesting that organics contain more antioxidants than conventional foods.
With all the research on fruits, vegetables and other plant foods and cancer, AICR hasn’t had a lot to say about organics. There has been relatively little research on organics and cancer risk, with no clear conclusions except one: eating a diet that is mainly from plants – whether they are organic or conventional – reduces the risk of cancer.
The new analysis, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, included 343 studies from 1992 to 2012. (1992 was when the European Union started regulating organic farming; about 70% of the studies were from Europe.)
The authors looked at how organics and conventional plant foods compared in vitamins, minerals and groups of phytochemicals that have shown antioxidant — and cancer-protective — activity in lab studies. The researchers also compared levels of pesticide compounds.
The authors carried out a lot of different analyses, and ended up with the finding that overall, organic foods had more antioxidant activity than their non-organic counterparts. The group of phenol phytochemicals stood out higher among organics. Resveratrol (high in grapes), quercetin (high in apples), EGCG (found in tea) are all types of phenols.
When separating fruits and vegetables, there was far more difference in antioxidant activity between organic fruits and non-organic fruits, than between the organic and non-organic vegetables.
The analysis also found that organic crops contained lower concentrations of fiber. Foods high in fiber link to lower colorectal cancer risk. Organics contained less protein and minerals were about the same.
A couple years ago another review of the evidence made a lot of news, which we wrote about.
That review also concluded that organics contained more phenols. Yet it found there was not enough strong evidence to say that organic foods contain more vitamins, minerals or other nutrients than non-organic foods.
This British Journal of Nutrition analysis adds to the evidence of what is known about organics. But for cancer risk, far more research is needed.
For one, measuring antioxidant activity in a food does not say much about how that food acts in the body. That’s why in 2012, the US government discontinued use of ORAC, a common measure of antioxidant activity that many of the analyzed studies used.
Also, antioxidant activity is only one way scientists hypothesize plant foods reduce cancer risk. Research is increasingly looking beyond antioxidants and pointing to inflammation for lower risk of cancer, for example.
But there are certainly plenty of reasons people may want to eat organic. Environmental issues and pesticides are a couple.
This new analysis found that conventional crops contained four times as much pesticides as organics, and higher amounts of one potentially toxic compound: cadmium. For those concerned with pesticides, organics is a good option. If you want to know the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides, one tool you can look at is the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Dirty Dozen.
For now, however you want to get your fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods, get them. Plant foods offers a supply of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phtyochemicals studied for their cancer-fighting actions. And replacing higher calorie foods with healthful plant foods also helps with weight control, which can help protect against eight cancers.
The study was funded by the European Community through financial participation under the Sixth Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration and the Sheepdrove Trust, which supports independent R&D underpinning the development of organic and sustainable farming and food systems.