Organic Food Consumption & Breast Cancer Risk: Separating Myth from Fact

Organic food is one of the hottest topics in nutrition today – a quick googling yields more than 18 million results – and nearly everyone has an opinion on it. A recent survey found that nearly half of all Americans report choosing organic foods when possible. In a study, those who ate more organic produce, dairy, meat, and other products had 25 percent fewer cancer diagnoses over all, especially lymphoma and breast cancer.

Organic vs. Non-Organic Foods

Conventionally grown and processed foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, livestock, and packaged items (e.g., cereals and frozen dinners) have all been exposed to an array of chemicals that show evidence of causing cancer in humans. They also may be exposed to hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and artificial additives, and could contain genetically modified ingredients. In contrast, organic crops are grown without chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified (GMO) seeds. Organic animal products like milk, eggs, cheese, and meats come from animals that have been raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics; their feed is free from GMOs, chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. In addition, organic processed and packaged foods prohibit ingredients like artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

People who buy organic food are usually convinced it’s better for their health, and they’re willing to pay dearly for it. But until now, evidence of the benefits of eating organic has been lacking.

A French study says

Now a new French study that followed 70,000 adults, most of them women, for five years has reported that the most frequent consumers of organic food had 25 percent fewer cancers over all than those who never ate organic. Those who ate the most organic fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat, and other foods had a particularly steep drop in the incidence of lymphomas and a significant reduction in postmenopausal breast cancers. The magnitude of protection surprised the study authors. “We did expect to find a reduction, but the extent of the reduction is quite important,” said Julia Baudry, the study’s lead author and a researcher with the Center of Research in Epidemiology and Statistics Sorbonne Paris Cité of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. She noted the study does not prove an organic diet causes a reduction in cancers but strongly suggests “that an organic-based diet could contribute to reducing cancer risk.”

Changing Dietary Recommendations

The study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, was paid for entirely by public and government funds. Nutrition experts from Harvard who wrote a commentary accompanying the study expressed caution, however, criticizing the researchers’ failure to test pesticide residue levels in participants in order to validate exposure levels. They called for more long-term government-funded studies to confirm the results.

“From a practical point of view, the results are still preliminary, and not sufficient to change dietary recommendations about cancer prevention,” said Dr. Frank B. Hu, one of the authors of the commentary and the chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Postmenopausal breast cancers were the most prevalent type of cancer developed by participants. This was followed by prostate and skin cancer. Those participants who ate the most organic food had just 34% fewer postmenopausal breast cancers. Thus, the diet seems to have a stronger impact on lymphomas compared to other types of cancers. According to the study, it concluded that a possible explanation for fewer cancers among those who ate more organic foods is the “prohibition of pesticide use in organic production methods,” resulting in lower contamination levels.

Probably Carcinogenic to Humans

In 2015, the World Health Organization/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified certain pesticides—like insecticides, malathion, diazinon and the herbicide glyphosate—as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” As using synthetic pesticides isn’t allowed under organic production, an organic-based diet is one way to reduce exposure to these and other potentially harmful chemicals. As this study confirms, eating organic foods can reduce a person’s exposure to some very real causes of cancer.

Significantly lower risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – New York Times

What’s unique about this study is that it’s one of the best to-date investigations on the link between organic foods and health and cancer. Reporting for the New York Times, Roni Caryn Rabin points out that the only other large study investigating this link was a large British study conducted in 2014. Like this study, it found a significantly lower risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among women who said they usually or always ate organic food, but a higher rate of breast cancers in organic consumers.

There has, however, been several studies looking at the nutritional quality of organic versus non-organic foods. Studies have found organic foods can contain higher levels of antioxidants and nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids. FoodNavigator.com says in a statement that IARC added another possible explanation for the findings of this French study. The publication states there are “potentially higher levels of certain micronutrients (carotenoid antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamin C or more beneficial fatty acid profiles) in organic foods.”

Eating Organic-based Diet

Eating an organic-based diet may offer protection from illnesses and cancer by both providing more nutrition—like higher levels of polyphenols (anti-cancer and -disease compounds)—and reducing exposure to pesticides. Not only is a healthy diet key for feeling happy and well day-to-day, but it’s also important for reducing one’s risk for developing many illnesses and chronic diseases.

Eating organic food may also help cancel out the harm done by pesticide residues in conventional foods. It could aid in boosting our immune systems and protect against the numerous environmental toxins we can be exposed to on a daily basis in today’s modern world. One helpful tool for eating organic is the Environmental Working Group’s Clean Fifteen/ Dirty Dozen list. It helps shoppers determine which fruits and vegetables are the “cleanest” and “dirtiest” in terms of pesticide residues.

Intake of plant-derived organic foods and breast cancer

A recent report mentions a 36% reduction in risk of postmenopausal breast cancer risk amongst organic food consumers compared to numerous studies which show a 30% reduction in risk with being a healthy weight, physically active, limiting alcohol, and not smoking. This finding has been replicated in numerous studies and is currently the best evidence-based guideline. The links with breast cancer are hard to interpret. There was no association between intake of plant-derived organic foods and breast cancer, which is a specific measure of pesticide exposure. Organic foods were associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer after rather than before the menopause, which does not make immediate biological sense.

These days, it seems like everyone has health secrets they swear by. Some claim certain foods or vitamins can cure breast cancer, others claim the same ones cause it. It can feel impossible sometimes to distinguish what’s a great health tip, and what can do more harm than good.

The Debate Continues

Despite evidence showing that consuming pesticides and other chemicals found in conventional food is not completely “safe” foods with these substances remain on the market. This can be confusing when you’re weighing just how important it is that you go organic. The answer as to why is not a simple one, but one of the most important points to consider as a consumer is a science that is reviewed when making decisions about substances that can be used in food production.

The correlation between cancer incidence and exposure to chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, and other chemicals found in conventional foods is well-established. What isn’t known is exactly how much exposure could cause a person to get the disease. Nevertheless, reducing your exposures (in your diet and from other sources) is a good idea, and it may reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic illnesses.

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