Organic food: Pricey, not particularly healthy, won't save you from cancer

Study of 'organic' food consumption and cancer risk showed some interesting results

It's all relative

Of course the fact is that all of these figures are dealing with relative risk, which is standard practice in epidemiological studies. To get some perspective, the chances of getting non-Hodgkins lymphoma is about 2.1 per cent, so if the results of this study hold true, then sticking to an always organic diet will reduce that to 1.66 per cent.

The figures for breast cancer are around 12.3 per cent life-time risk, and this will be increased to 13.4 per cent if you go the all organic route. And if you really want to trade punches with the proponents of organic, you can point out that a high-organic diet will lead to more cancers as the incidence of breast cancer is much higher than the incidence of non-Hodgkins.

However, it’s unlikely that this finding is going to do much to dissuade the faithful that the benefits of organics have been over-sold. After all, this is not the first negative study when it comes to organics and health. A systematic review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 found that: "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods".

There were differences reported to do with pesticide residues but nothing to cause alarm. In terms of nutrient content, there was one statistically significant nutrient where organics outdid conventional produce: phosphorous. Now, if you’re starving, then eating organic is the better choice, but if you’re not, then increased phosphorous is pretty much irrelevant as it’s abundant in the diet no matter where it comes from.

Of course it’s the pesticide residues that ultimately drive the idea that organics are better for us. This ignores the fact that even organic food uses pesticides, for example rotenone and pyrethrin, some of which are considered carcinogenic or otherwise hazardous to health.

And, just to throw in some numbers, a study by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2012 found that 4 per cent of organic food samples had pesticide residues above the 5 per cent EPA limit, which technically meant they would have failed the organic certification they carried.

But leaving that aside, the chemophobia of much of the population is stoked by the use of in vitro studies which show that certain pesticides are carcinogenic. However, there is a huge difference between the inside of a petri dish and the inside of a human.

Pesticides are amongst the most heavily regulated chemical agents in the world, and if there was a link to cancer incidence then we would expect to see it in studies such as this one, and in studies that looked at farm workers and others who have greater exposure to pesticides.

One recently published paper looked at the incidence of cancer in agricultural workers in France during the period 2005 – 2009 (the AGRICAN study). It reported that overall agricultural workers were healthier than the general population, with reduced cancer incidence compared to the general population in the same areas. So where are the bodies (so to speak)?

There are, of course, problems with this new study in the UK. For one there was no stratification by type of organic diet – so, for example, we don’t know whether the lymphoma result was skewed by an excess of vegans or carnivores.

And the categories of "never", "sometimes" and "usually/always" are by necessity coarse and difficult to quantify – for example how can you tell how much non-organic food the "usually" group eats?

But for all that, this is study with a large sample size and if there was a positive signal that eating organic protects against cancer you’d expect to see it.

The upshot? It’s probably true to say that spending the pennies (or pounds) you save by eating non-organic on eating MORE fruit and veg is a healthier bet than forking out the extra for "organics". ®

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