Go into any large supermarket today and you’ll see something there that you wouldn’t have 20 years ago: organic fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and dairy. Despite the premium prices, demand for organic food is growing. For those with cancer or trying to reduce their risk of cancer, does organic make a difference?
One of the obvious benefits of organic produce is that they are grown without the use of pesticides. The US government regulates the types and amount of pesticides used on conventionally grown crops, and deems this a safe practice. However, others in the environmental community disagree, saying that it is the build-up of pesticides over time as well as potential combinations that can be toxic, causing disruption in hormones and cells, both of which can cause cancer. Organic fruits and vegetables also tend to be lower in cancer-promoting nitrates. (1,3)
Proponents of organic often state that the food is more nutritious than conventionally grown foods. While this remains a contested area of research, at least two recent meta-analyses suggest that organic foods are higher in anti-oxidants, which are considered important in the fight against cancer. On the other hand, vitamin A and protein tend to be higher in conventionally grown foods. Deficiencies in these nutrients are rare, so their increased presence is not considered significant. Whether the difference in anti-oxidant content is enough to make a meaningful change in one’s health, however, is not clear.
As for meat, poultry and dairy, organically raised animals are not routinely given antibiotics or hormones. Overuse of antibiotics appears to be contributing to the development of resistant bacterial strains. Controversy over hormones centers on their potential to promote growth and interrupt endocrine functioning, both of which can play a role in the development of cancer. (4) Organically raised animals are given feed more natural to the animal (for example cows eat grass, not corn) and have access to open air. The result is more beneficial fat in the form of omega 3 and higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), which have been associated with many health benefits, including fighting cancer.
In addition to the above, organic foods are not genetically modified or irradiated. To display the USDA organic seal on a product, food producers must seek certification by the National Organic Standards Board.
If you’re thinking that going organic just won’t work because it’s too expensive, think again. Fortunately, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, has put together a list of foods that carry the highest amounts of pesticides, which it calls “The Dirty Dozen Plus.” Buying at least these organic will greatly decrease your exposure to pesticides, while not putting such a big dent in your wallet. You can also shop at farmer’s markets. Many small farmers actually practice organic farming but do not have the money or resources to apply for the USDA organic seal. You can simply ask the farmer how he or she practices.
Cancer is a multi-dimensional illness with many factors contributing to increased risk. Food is just one of the many tools you have to fight back. When establishing your dietary “rules to live by,” one of the best places to start is with following a plant-based diet with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. And when it comes to meat, poultry and dairy, watch portion sizes and favor the leaner options. After that, you can refine your plan by buying organic wherever or whenever you can.
Esther Trepal, RD, MS
- Baranski M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, et al. (2014) Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Brit J of Nutr. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007114514001366 (Accessed July 22, 2014.)
- Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau M, Hunter G, Bavinger J, et al. (2012) Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? Ann Intern Med 157, 348-366.
- Dangour A, Dodhia S, Hayter A, et al. (2009) Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 90, 680-685.
- Bareuther C. Meat and poultry: organic’s hottest new frontier. Today’s Diet and Nutrition. September/October 2008.