If anyone tells you they have the definitive answer, they’re misleading you.
Growing foods conventionally usually – but not always – involves the use of some pesticides when there’s a need to control harmful bugs, plant viruses, fungi, etc. that damage either the whole plant or the edible portion of it. These compounds are expensive, so farmers tend not to use them unless absolutely necessary, and then in the least amount possible for the needed benefit.
Organic crops are thought to be grown without pesticides, but there are hundreds of pesticides approved for use on organic crops. Most are organic ones, but in certain circumstances, as with a particularly difficult to control pest, USDA has rules in place to allow limited use of a few dozen synthetic pesticides is allowed, and the food produced can still be labeled “organic”.
But Is Organic Food Healthier?
“Healthier” has no formal definition, but let’s say it means you have a lower risk of developing cancer, since that’s a highly desirable outcome by everyone. Would eating organic food make you less likely to develop cancer?
This recent study wanted to find out. It was a prospective study – meaning that it went on for years before results were determined. As part of a large study involving 68,946 French participants, all volunteers “self-reported” the frequency of consumption of organic foods. Responses about consumption were multiple choice and ranged from 1 (“most of the time”) to 7 (“never”), with an option for “I don’t know”. Demographic information was also gathered, including about household income. This was interesting, because the top household income bracket was US $3,100, hardly “upper income” even in 2009, when the study launched.
The Good News: Organic Eaters Had Less Cancer
More frequently eating organic foods was “associated” with lower your cancer risk. Key word, “associated”. It’s the bane of my existence because it is often interpreted as “cause-and-effect,” a very wrong assumption.
Why? This study was “observational”. These types of studies aren’t designed to evaluate cause-and-effect. They can only generate a hypothesis that clinical studies could then evaluate for more direct conclusions. This study is incapable of making such conclusions.
The not-so-good news: the benefit of eating organic was minimal, at best. The risk of getting cancer went down only 0.6% — that’s 6/10ths of one percent, and only for the most frequent eaters of organic food. Even then, the benefit may be less than reported. Read on…
Limitations of the Study, A.K.A. the “Fine Print”
The authors responsibly called out a fairly lengthy list of limitations of this study, and why the results need to be seen with caution:
- The participants were volunteers who were “likely particularly health conscious individuals”, therefore limiting the application of the results to the general public.
- The questionnaire used asked about frequency of consumption but not quantity. Also, possible misclassification of organic foods, “cannot be excluded.”
- Follow-up time was short – an average of only about 4½ years. Cancer can take many years to develop and it’s unclear what the diets of these participants were prior to participation.
- Possible “residual confounding resulting from unmeasured factors or inaccuracy in the assessment of some covariates cannot be totally excluded.” This means there is a lot they didn’t measure or that they couldn’t measure accurately.
- They could not exclude the non-detection of some cancers.
- Will eating organic food help prevent cancer? Not based on this study.
- Organic food is expensive, and thus out of reach of many, even if they can find it.
- Organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free.
- Focus on this: A mountain of research showing the health benefits (including cancer risk reduction) of eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, was done using conventional foods!