The latest nutrition headline to catch on with the media is how eating organic can reduce your risk of developing cancer by 25%. So let’s unpack this- does eating organic REALLY reduce your risk of developing cancer?
Years of research between organic and conventional foods have shown that the nutritional value is similar. Purchasing organic is a personal preference just as purchasing conventional is. Often, organic items are not affordable for consumers so headlines like this may unnecessarily make shoppers who purchase conventional feel as though they are increasing their, and their families, cancer risk by not purchasing organic. No consumer should be shamed for purchasing fruits and vegetables for their families whether they are conventional or organic.
So now let’s break down the study. The actual absolute reduction risk reported in the study is a mere 0.6%. The author of the study herself stated that the study does not prove an organic diet causes a reduction in cancer but suggests that an organic based diet COULD contribute to reducing cancer risk. The results also discuss how a higher frequency of consumption of organic foods only led to a decreased risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and breast cancer while there was no association detected for other types of cancer. Confounding factors must also be considered with this study like the fact that those who purchase organic tend to be wealthier, eat more fruits and vegetables in general, and consume less processed meat and alcohol- all which play a part in reducing cancer risk.
The issue isn’t with the study, it’s the reporting of it. An important aspect of reporting on this type of research is accurately interpreting scientific research. The American Cancer Society provides guidance on how to see beyond the headline of “scientists find link between X and cancer” or in the case of this study “X can reduce your risk of cancer by (insert insane percentage here)”. Their guidance goes beyond cancer related research and provides great advice on how to interpret any type of nutrition or health study that you might come across in the media- what’s the source, what did the research actually find, who funded the research, what about other evidence and what is the bigger picture, and who are the experts?
As a public health dietitian, I still encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables. It is a matter of personal preference to purchase organic and consumers should feel empowered to make the best choice for them and their families. While studies, and headlines, like these seem incredibly groundbreaking and hopeful, let’s all be good stewards of nutrition science and read beyond the headline to ensure consumers receive factual information without fear.