Your Weekly Checkup: Should You Eat Organic Food?

A recent study contends that organic foods are less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional foods, a finding that might make them less carcinogenic.

Orgnaic fruit

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“Your Weekly Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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I have become the grocery shopper and cook for my wife and me. When I shop, I generally have not paid much attention to whether I bought organic foods. If I came to the organic banana display prior to reaching regular bananas, I’d probably buy organic. If the reverse, I bought nonorganic. I have steered away from seeking out organic foods for no particularly good reason.

However, a recent study on the association of frequency of organic food consumption with cancer risk has made me rethink my shopping habits.

The authors of this population-based prospective cohort study of 68,946 French adult volunteers contend that organic foods are less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional foods, a finding that might make them less carcinogenic.

Participants were categorized into four groups depending on how often they reported eating 16 organic products, including fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, ready-to-eat meals, vegetable oils and condiments, dietary supplements, and other products.

The authors found that participants who ate the most organic foods compared to those who rarely or never ate organic foods were 25% less likely to develop cancer overall, and specifically 73% less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphomas and 21% less likely to develop post-menopausal breast cancer. Even participants who ate low-to-medium quality diets yet stuck with organic food experienced a reduced risk of cancer.

An audio interview by the author of an accompanying editorial stated that the results were “incredibly important.” The findings are consistent with those of the International Agency for Research in Cancer, which found pesticides are cancer causing in humans.

The author of the editorial found in another study of 325 women who completed a diet assessment and subsequently underwent 541 assisted reproductive technology cycles that greater consumption of high-pesticide residue fruits and vegetables was associated with lower probabilities of pregnancy and live births following infertility treatment. They concluded that dietary pesticide exposure within the range of typical human exposure may be associated with adverse reproductive consequences. Avocados appear to have the lowest pesticide contamination.

So we have two important studies pointing to the benefits of eating organic food. How valid are the conclusions?

Experts warn that it is very difficult to assess diet accurately, particularly intake of organic foods. Also, there may be confounding influences. For example, those who chose a particular diet may be impacted by other health issues that could affect cancer risk. Finally, the authors of the first study didn’t collect any information on pesticides, such as amounts in urine, so that explanation is speculative.

For me, the takeaway conclusion is a phrase my grandmother used frequently when considering a controversial issue, “If it wouldn’t hurt” then it was okay to do something. In the future, I will buy organic because “it wouldn’t hurt.”

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  1. The article cites a French study that concludes organic foods have less pesticide residue and are therefore safer. As a retired produce buyer, I assure you that non-organic U.S. foods are 99%+ pesticide-free, according to the thousands of samples tested by the USDA going back many years. Much like prayer, the placebo effect may in fact result in lower rates of cancer, but it is most certainly not because of eating organic. [“Should You Eat Organic Food?” Nov. 13, 2018]


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