When looking at prevention another area to question is whether you should switch to an organic diet to lower your risk of cancer.
This requires looking at two things: firstly the association between pesticide exposure and cancer.
Secondly, whether there are lower incidences of cancer amongst people who have adopted a predominantly organic diet.
Definition and Proposed Benefit of Organic Diets
Organic certifications prohibit the use of certain pesticides, artificial foods and genetically modified ingredients. It also implements higher animal welfare standards in relation to living conditions, animal feed and veterinary treatments.
The suggested benefits to eating organic include:
- Lowering your exposure to pesticides and other chemical compounds which may be linked to diseases
- Improved nutritional profile as organic foods have a greater micronutrient and antioxidant content
- A reduction in overall chemical usage and greater animal welfare standards are a better approach ethically, environmentally and for those working in agriculture or food manufacturing.
It is worth noting that certain natural substances can be used under the organic standard that still may have a negative impact on our health and continue to create imbalances in the ecosystem. There have also been cases of producers obtaining organic certifications fraudulently, so the organic standard doesn’t provide absolute guarantees.
Is Organic Worth The Extra £££’s
There are issues with organic food for consumers including accessibility, cost and even a question mark around the definition of organic. So is it worth the extra investment?
The evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of a significant benefit.
A greater health advantage has been confirmed simply by increasing vegetable and fruit intake and consuming more plant-based foods to lower the risk of disease, so everyone should start there and work with their budget on the organic front.
Whilst studies confirming the benefits are lacking, research has confirmed that:
- Organic produce has a higher antioxidant content. Particularly nutrients like vitamin C and the carotenoid family
- Organic food also tends to have a greater polyphenol content. Polyphenols are plant compounds that have a disease protecting effect and provide prebiotic support to the gut microbiome, they act as a fertiliser increasing the variety of species
- There is also fewer pesticides and less toxic, heavy metals like cadmium in organic produce
- Other studies have observed 5 times higher pesticide content in conventionally grown produce compared to organic
- Although the amount of pesticide residues are still within the safe limits designated by regulators there’s little understanding about the effect of chronic, low dose exposure. Many researchers have highlighted that a persistent low dose may be as problematic for health
The above is a little concerning when you consider the ongoing combination of pesticides, artificial ingredients and antibiotics that we consume via food alongside other environmental chemicals from water, air pollution, household and industrial products.
A great resource for more information on pesticide usage and impact in the UK is Pesticide Action Network PAN
Pesticides and Cancer
Increasing amounts of research have shown a positive association between pesticide exposure and cancer, especially non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukaemia.
Children’s and pregnant women seem especially vulnerable, and many studies have shown positive associations between pesticide exposure and solid tumours, especially brain, prostate and kidney.
Glyphosate, one of the world’s most commonly used pesticides (found in garden products like Round-Up) and was classified as a probable human carcinogen by World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.
The impact of pesticides is likely so much greater than has been established, however, the reality is hidden by a lack of evidence and the fact that few studies have been conducted in countries like India or Brazil where usage is the highest.
Another problem is that when assessed for safety, pesticides ingredients are studied individually yet have hundreds of active ingredients. The few that have been studied and identified as carcinogens are banned in most countries, yet a possible 80% have not been put through rigorous examination.
For some people environmental and workplace exposure will be making a more significant difference, so limiting exposure through food and eating organic may not offer a complete solution but surely any reduction helps.
Organic Diets and Cancer
At this stage, there isn’t much research to suggest that transitioning to an organic diet will improve cancer risk. In one of the largest studies, the consumption of organic foods provided a slight decrease in the incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, however, little or no decrease in the incidence of other cancers.
Interestingly, eating organic was positively associated with breast cancer and this highlights the downfall of observational studies.
The authors explained this was likely due to the fact women frequently consuming organic food are more likely to attend breast cancer screening and therefore are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Simple Changes: Where You Shop Counts
Different supermarkets have different approaches to pesticides. This diagram details which in the UK are doing the most about reducing pesticides.
Simple Changes: Part-Time Organic
Some products require greater pesticide usage to be grown and when examined have high levels of pesticide residues.
PAN UK analysed UK government data from 2018 -2020 and identified those with the highest pesticide content, known as the Dirty Dozen.
If you consume any of the foods below frequently it may be helpful to opt for organic varieties.
- Dried grapes: sultanas/raisins
- Pre-packed salad
- Peaches and nectarines
You could apply the same principle to other staples in your diet that you eat on a regular basis. If the foods are manufactured it will also reduce some of the added synthetic ingredients that are harmful to our microbiome. Organic bread and cereals don’t cost a huge amount more than conventional but could provide a significant reduction.
Organic dairy, eggs and animal produce also tend to have a better balance of essential fatty acids, in particular, omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and conjugated linoleic acid likely due to being raised on a better diet and grass-fed to some degree.
You could consider buying organic versions of cheaper food items like eggs, butter, milk and yoghurt to benefit from the improved nutrition profile and reduce chemical consumption.
Chemical Free Beyond Organic
A more finically viable option might be to contact local farmers directly via farm shops and markets, or online delivery/farm drop services. Many are using chemical-free farming methods but the cost of certification is simply too high.
Check Where You Invest Your £££’s
Clients will often comment about how expensive it is to eat healthily or take quality supplements.
I completely agree but it can be helpful to check how much you invest in things that don’t support your health versus the things that do.
When it comes to pleasure it’s easy not to think twice about buying alcohol, confectionery, cars or fast fashion.
If there’s a bargain to be had that’s even better!
However, there’s a price to pay for all of it in terms of your health and the environment.
If you consume less, you can save more and have some extra income to invest in producers and manufacturers who have human health and the future of the planet at heart.
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