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.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Posted July 9, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

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.

UA-43257393-1