Does organic food protect against cancer?

Amy Thomas Health Guide
  • While it seems this "less-tainted" variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and other foods would contain fewer carcinogens, the answer is No-organic isn't anti-cancer. Or at least not that we can prove. But what are the benefits of organically grown foods, and should you spend the extra cash?


    While organic produce contains higher levels of certain nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus, the main health benefits sought are reducing exposure of potentially dangerous chemicals. In a nutshell, organic food is produced without the use of synthetic substances. Organic crops are grown without using conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge fertilizers, while organic livestock are only feed organic feed and are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Also, organic products are not genetically engineered or treated with ionizing radiation.

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    So what benefits do these "less-contaminated" organic products provide?


    There isn't enough data to establish a definitive benefit. Organic produce generally contains less agrochemical residue than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. But the actual level of contamination in both organic and conventional produce is generally low, so the difference may not be significant. Heavy metal contamination is equally present in both types of produce, but the nitrate content of organic produce is lower than that of conventional produce. Nitrate exposure has been linked to an increased risk of some cancers, especially those of the gastrointestinal tract, but large-scale studies are needed to confirm organic products have a protective effect.

    Of particular interest to parents and pregnant women is the fact that organic food generally reduces exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. While the significance of this is uncertain, organophophorus compound exposure is linked to neural tube defects (congenital abnormalities of the spine), and certain organophosphorus pesticides are known to be "genotoxic," or capable of inducing DNA damage-a process that on occasion can lead to malignant transformation of cells. Though it seems prudent to minimize pesticide exposure in developing fetuses and growing children, further research is needed to confirm long term benefits of reduced pesticide exposure, and to determine the amount of exposure that would be safe. The highest level of pesticide contamination is found in apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Until more is known, it would be reasonable to at least buy the organic versions of these fruits and veggies.

    So how can you tell which products are truly organic? Products made with only organic ingredients are labeled "100 percent organic" and given the USDA Organic Seal. "Organic" products, or those made with at least 95% organically produced ingredients, can also have the USDA stamp, but when a product is made of at least 70% organic ingredients it is labeled "made with organic ingredients" and does not get the seal. Organic or not, you should continue to always wash produce to remove fertilizer made of animal manure, fish emulsion, or plant debris, and to remove any trace bacterial contamination. And keep in mind that at this time scientific evidence shows that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweighs the potential risk of agrochemical contamination, so you should continue to eat at least 5 servings per day-organic or not.


Published On: September 02, 2008