Study Suggests Organic Foods May Not Be More Nutritious, but Also Points Out How Much We Don’t Know

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The term “organic” refers to plant crops grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers or genetic modifications, and processed without irradiation or chemical food additives. It also refers to meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products raised/produced without antibiotics or growth hormones and fed organic grain and other feed.

There is some controversy about whether organic foods offer more health benefits and nutrients than conventionally produced foods. Many people believe organic foods are healthier, but study results have been mixed. Still, many people question how safe chemical pesticides and fertilizers and extra hormones are in the body. There’s a real concern that these chemicals may cause health problems, including an increase in breast cancer risk.

To try and help answer the question about whether organic foods are healthier than conventionally produced foods, a group of researchers from Stanford University analyzed 237 previously published studies on organic food done between January 1966 and May 2011. These studies included 17 done in humans and 223 studies on nutrient and contaminant levels in foods.

The research was published online on Sept. 4, 2012 by Annals of Internal Medicine. Read the abstract of “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.”

While the analysis didn’t show that organic foods are substantially healthier than conventionally produced foods, there were many limitations in the studies that were analyzed:

  • No long-term studies have looked at the differences in health outcomes between people who eat mostly organic foods compared to people who eat mostly conventionally produced foods. So we just don’t know if people who eat mostly organic are healthier than people who don’t eat organic.
  • Even the studies that looked at health outcomes over a short time didn’t look at any outcomes related to cancer in general or breast cancer specifically.
  • While none of the studies showed a direct connection between pesticide exposure and an increased risk of breast cancer in people, we do know that young female farm workers have a higher risk for a range of medical conditions.
  • We also know that some of the most commonly used pesticides, including Atrazine, used in corn production, have been shown to mimic estrogen in lab animals.

And while the researchers couldn’t say with complete certainty that organic foods are healthier than conventionally produced foods, the analysis did show some benefits:

  • Conventionally produced foods had a 30% higher risk for pesticide residue contamination compared to organic foods.
  • Two studies on children found lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of kids who ate mostly organic foods compared to kids who ate mostly conventionally produced foods.
  • Conventionally produced pork and chicken appears to have a 33% higher risk of being contaminated with bacteria that’s resistant to three or more types of antibiotics compared to organic pork and chicken.

This analysis shows us how much we don’t know about the health effects of chemicals in the food we eat. Much more research is needed in this area.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer or are concerned about your breast health, the “better safe than sorry” principle makes sense here. And common sense suggests that eating extra chemicals is probably unhealthy.

It’s true that organic food is usually more expensive than non-organic food. Still, eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is much better than not eating fruits and vegetables because you can’t afford organic produce. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t have the luxury of buying all organic, there are ways you can stretch your organic food dollars.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an environmental health advocacy organization based in the United States. The EWG analyzes pesticide studies and ranks contamination on 45 of the most popular fruits and vegetables in the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides. The Shopper’s Guide makes it easier to decide what to buy organic.

For more tips on how to include more organic food in your diet, visit the Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Exposure to Chemicals in Food page in the Breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section.

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