While shopping at the grocery, it's easy to look at the organic and nonorganic produce and wonder whether there's any significant difference. They look essentially the same, so why spend the extra cash? Those who do opt for organic produce may wonder, "Is this paying off?"
Health scientists remain skeptical about the supposed benefits of eating organic foods. For some, recent research has raised their hopes.
According to a new study out of France published in JAMA Internal Medicine, "A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer." However, these results show correlation rather than direct causation. Those who more frequently ate organic foods were generally healthier than those who ate organic foods less frequently; eating organic foods is not necessarily what caused people to become healthier. Nevertheless, the researchers found that "promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer." Hey, it's worth a try, right?
There's more fine print, though. The study concludes that eating more organic food "was associated with a decreased risk of developing NHL (non-Hodgkin lymphoma) and postmenopausal breast cancer, while no association was detected for other types of cancer." Still, some positive results are better than none.
According to the Natural Cancer Institute, about 38.4 percent of men and women get cancer "at some point during their lifetimes," based on cases from 2013 to 2015. That is more than every 1 in 3 people. Part of the reason for this is that cancer-related risk factors, such as obesity, are becoming increasingly common.
For safety's sake, consumers would be wise to take dietary precautions. This is especially true of those whose diets are particularly sensitive.
Rolf Halden, a professor and the director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, told Time magazine that "vulnerable groups -- including pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people suffering from allergies -- may benefit the most from choosing organically produced foods." If you or someone you know belongs to any of these groups and can afford to buy organic foods, the potential rewards may be worth the investment.
But not everyone agrees that eating more organic food can help prevent cancer. Those who remain unconvinced point out that organic food is not produced as cleanly as people have been led to believe -- and that nonorganic food is not as dirty.
In a recent article for the American Council on Science and Health, Dr. Alex Berezow says that some carcinogens, including ethanol, are approved for use in organic food production. And in nonorganic food production, the most common pesticides in the United States "are used at such extremely low levels that they do not pose risks to consumers." Evidently, that's still up for debate. And JAMA Internal Medicine is not shying away from the discourse.
In a commentary regarding the French research study, Harvard nutrition experts admit that "the link between cancer risk and organic food intake is still uncertain." This uncertainty may be enough incentive for people to buy organic produce. But even if you choose not to go organic, "there is compelling evidence that improving other factors, such as body weight, physical activity and diet, can lower cancer risk."
Organic or nonorganic food aside, Mayo Clinic recommends that people eat a varied diet, try to eat in season, check food labels and thoroughly wash fresh produce. Similarly, the American Cancer Society's "Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity" say that people should try to maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, eat a plant-focused diet and limit alcohol intake. These practices, when made into habits, are associated with better overall health and come at less of a surcharge. And the sooner you make these expert suggestions part of your routine, the sooner you'll reap the benefits.
Ultimately, it's a matter of choice. Organic food is not necessarily more healthful than nonorganic food, and obesity, a common risk factor for cancer, can be fought in more ways than one. While eating organic foods may help you maintain a healthy weight and thereby lower your risk of developing some cancers, other factors are also at play.
If eating organic doesn't fit in your budget, then it won't "pay off."