Do Organic Foods Decrease Cancer Risk?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Organic foods, Reduce Cancer Risk

Is Eating Organic Worth The Cost?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

organic foods decrease cancer riskMillions of Americans choose organic foods whenever possible. However, organic foods are expensive, and some experts claim they are a waste of money. That is why recent headlines claiming that eating organic foods decrease cancer risk have created such a stir. I will look at the study behind the headlines below, but first let me summarize what we do know about organic foods.

I discussed a study comparing organic and conventionally-grown produce in a recent issue, Organic Foods Healthier, of “Health Tips From the Professor”. It was a major study that combined the results from 343 of the best-designed previous studies. The study found that pesticide and herbicide residues were 4-fold lower in organically-raised produce than in conventionally-raised produce. It also found that the polyphenol content of organically-raised produce was slightly higher than in conventionally-raised produce.

Neither of these findings automatically mean that eating organic produce will improve your health. However, there is increasing evidence that pesticide exposure is linked to increased risk of cancer. Thus, it seems logical that eating organic might decrease cancer risk. It is that hypothesis that the current study (J Baudry et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4357 ) was designed to test.

 

How Was The Study Designed?

stethoscopeThis study is part of a major French study called NutriNet-Santé that was launched in 2009. The NutriNet-Santé study is web-based study designed to investigate associations between nutrition and health.Volunteers with access to the internet were recruited from the general population. After agreeing to participate in the study, the volunteers were asked to complete a battery of online assessment forms.

The baseline data for the NutriNet-Santé study included age, sex, occupational status, education level, marital status, income, number of children, smoking status, physical activity, and diet. Dietary intake was assessed using three 24-hour dietary recalls collected over a 2-week period. Two of the 24-hour dietary recalls were on weekdays and one was on a weekend.

The dietary recalls were used to create a “score” of diet quality. Without going into detail, diets that favored animal protein, animal fats, sweets, and highly processed foods were considered “poor quality diets.” Diets that favored plant proteins, vegetable oils & and omega-3 fats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were considered “good quality diets.”

This portion of the NutriNet-Santé was designed to measure the correlation between organic food consumption and cancer risk. Two months after enrollment in the study, the participants were asked to provide information on the frequency with which they chose the organic version of 16 different types of food. From this information each participant was assigned an “organic food score” ranging from 0 to 32 points.

The participants in this study were also asked to complete a yearly health status questionnaire online. If they reported a cancer diagnosis, they were asked to provide their medical records, and the study physicians contacted the patient’s physician to confirm details of the diagnosis.

A total of 68,946 French adults completed the study (78% female, mean age 44.2 years). They were followed for an average of 4.56 years. During this time period there were 1340 new cancer diagnoses in this population.

 

Do Organic Foods Decrease Cancer Risk?

 

organic foods decrease cancer risk chartThe participants were divided into four groups based on their organic food score. When participants with the highest organic food score were compared to those with the lowest organic food score there was a:

  • 25% reduction in total cancer risk.
  • 86% reduction in non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk. This is not a novel finding. A previous study has also suggested eating organic might reduce the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • 76% reduction in all lymphoma risk.
  • 34% reduction in postmenopausal breast cancer risk.

The authors concluded “A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Although the study findings need to be confirmed, promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer.”

These are the results and conclusions that made the headlines. However, the scientists who designed the study were aware of previous data showing that people who eat organic are also more likely to eat a healthy diet and follow a healthy lifestyle. Thus, their statistical analysis of the data considered all factors that might influence cancer risk. This analysis provided a much more nuanced interpretation of the data. They found that the association between increased organic food consumption and decreased cancer risk:

  • Was significant for women, older adults, individuals with a family history of cancer, individuals who had a poor diet, and former smokers.
  • Was seen for people of all weights but was greatest for individuals who were obese.
  • Was non-significant for men, younger adults, individuals with no family history of cancer, individuals who had a good diet, never-smokers, and current smokers.
  • Was non-significant for other types of cancer.

You are probably wondering “Does this mean organic foods are beneficial for some people, but not for others?” A superficial interpretation of these data might lead to that conclusion, but let’s dig a little deeper.

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

organic foods decrease cancer risk women ponderingIn interpreting a study of this type, it is important to ask whether enough people will develop cancer during the study for the results to be statistically significant. That depends on 3 factors:

  • The number of people enrolled in the study.
  • The duration of the study.
  • The probability that participants will develop cancer during the duration of the study.

When you look at the whole study population, all three criteria have been met. There were 68,949 participants who were followed for 4.56 years. During that time 1340 of them developed cancer, of which 459 were breast cancer, 47 were non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and 15 were other lymphomas. A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a decreased in the risk of all these cancers, and that decreased risk was statistically significant. This is the main take-home lesson of the study.

However, when you start to break the study down into subgroups, the number of people in each subgroup and the duration of the study become limiting factors. For example:

  • We don’t really know whether eating organic foods are unimportant for men or whether there were too few men in the study for any benefit to be statistically significant.
  • Colon cancer and many other cancers develop gradually over a 10 to 20-year period. We don’t know whether choosing organic foods is unimportant for these cancers or whether 4.56 years is too short a time to show a significant benefit.
  • The same is true for several of the other variables in this study. For example, if you are an older adult, have a family history of cancer, have a bad diet, and/or have smoked in the recent past, your probability of developing cancer over a 4.56-year time period is relatively high. On the other hand, if you are younger, have no family history of cancer, have a good diet, and have never smoked, your probability of developing cancer during that same time period is very low.

So, how do we interpret the data with these subgroups? We could conclude that eating organic foods in unimportant for people who are young, have no family history of cancer, have a good diet, and have never smoked. A more likely interpretation, however, is that people in these groups have such a low risk of cancer that 4.56 years is too short to demonstrate a benefit of organic foods. It might require a 10, 20, or 30-year study to show benefit of organic foods for these people.

Let me close with three important observations:

  • People often say too me: “I can’t afford organic fruits and vegetables, but I am concerned about pesticide exposure. Does that mean I should avoid fruits and vegetables?” The data from this study provide a clear answer. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is beneficial even if you can’t afford organic.

[I also let them know about “The Dirty Dozen” ( Rank Produce Items By Pesticide Level ). This is a list of the fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticides. If your budget for organic foods is limited, these are the most important fruits and vegetables to spend it on.]

  • I find it ironic that people who consume a poor diet are the ones most likely to experience an immediate benefit from choosing organic foods. This is, of course, the group that is least likely to eat organic.
  • If you smoke, eating organic probably isn’t going to help you much. Your best bet is to stop smoking.

 

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study looked at the association between organic food consumption and cancer risk. When participants who consumed organic foods frequently were compared to those who almost never consumed organic foods there was a:

  • 25% reduction in total cancer risk.
  • 86% reduction in non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk. This is not novel. A previous study has also suggested eating organic might reduce the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • 76% reduction in all lymphoma risk.
  • 34% reduction in postmenopausal breast cancer risk.

The authors concluded “A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Although the study findings need to be confirmed, promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer.”

These are the results and conclusions that you have seen in the headlines. However, the scientists who designed the study were aware of previous data showing that people who eat organic are also more likely to eat a healthy diet and follow a healthy lifestyle. Thus, their statistical analysis of the data considered all factors that might influence cancer risk. This analysis provided a much more nuanced interpretation of the data, which I have discussed in the article above.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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