Does Eating Organic Foods Decrease Cancer Risk?

November 9, 2018

We spoke with Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, about the recent JAMA study on the association between organic food consumption and cancer risk.

There are few studies available that evaluate the association between eating an organic food–based diet and cancer risk. However, the results of a recent cohort study reported that French adults who consumed a higher amount of organic foods experienced a reduction in cancer risk.

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, clinical nutrition and wellness manager at Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai, in New York, New York, who was not involved with the research, spoke with Cancer Network about the results of this study. “Subjects in the study consuming a high amount of organic food also consumed more fruits and vegetables, were well educated, and engaged in other health-promoting behaviors. These factors may also have a risk-reducing effect in regards to cancer. According to research to date, nutritional value of organic vs non-organic produce does not differ significantly. Due to the lack of research on organic foods and cancer risk to date and the limitations of this study, the benefits of consuming a diet with adequate fruits and vegetables continues to be an important dietary factor to advocate for, whether or not the food is organic,” she said.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, included 68,946 participants, evaluating their reports of consumption frequency of 16 organic food products (“never,” “occasionally,” or “most of the time”) from May 2009 to November 2016. The researchers then computed an organic food score. Nearly 80% of the participants were women (78.0%), with a mean age of 44.2 years.

“It is unclear why there was such a high proportion of female participants. A more useful study design might either separate by gender or be more equally inclusive of both sexes,” noted Hogan.

However, researchers did note this limitation in their study and explained that most volunteers were “likely particularly health-conscious individuals, thus limiting the generalizability of our findings. NutriNet-Santé participants are more often female, are well educated, and exhibit healthier behaviors compared with the French general population. These factors may have led to a lower cancer incidence herein than the national estimates, as well as higher levels of organic food consumption in our sample,” said the researchers led by Julia Baudry, PhD, of the Centre of Research in Epidemiology and Statistics Sorbonne Paris Cité.

During the study follow-up period, 1,340 first-time cancers were reported, including breast cancer (n = 459), prostate cancer (n = 180), skin cancers (n = 135), colorectal cancer (n = 99), non-Hodgkin lymphomas (n = 47), and other lymphomas (n = 15). Researchers reported an inverse association with overall cancer risk in those with high organic food scores, with an absolute risk reduction of 0.6%.

These data, which require confirmation, may provide insight into cancer prevention strategies that use organic food consumption to decrease cancer risk among the general population.

“The last thing those at risk for cancer or the general population need is unnecessary fear of eating non-organic foods, and I don’t think any recommendations can or should be changed based on these results. This study is extremely limited, and much research still needs to be done on this topic to inform changes to the current recommendations,” concluded Hogan.