You don’t need to shop only at health food stores to encounter organic food anymore. It is everywhere now and the high prices can really make you pause. Are the higher prices worth it? For a lot of people they are. Last year (2017) the organic food market was worth $45.2 billion and it has continued to grow. But, until recently the evidence that organic food is actually better for you has been lacking. A large study just came out in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing organic food consumption may lead to a significant reduction in the risk of cancer.

This French study included 70,000 adults observed for five years. Follow up of the participants showed that those who ate a diet high in organic foods had a 25 percent lower chance of developing cancer. For certain cancers, like lymphomas and breast cancer that percent was even higher–a lot higher.

The researchers factored in other known cancer contributors like smoking, alcohol consumption, body weight, and family history, before coming to their conclusions. It is also important to note that this study was paid for completely by public and government money and not say, the organic food industry, which would have a clear bias in favor of organic foods.

The size of this study is impressive and the factors just mentioned give strength to the results, however, it is important to look at the research in context. It is one of the first studies of its kind, and when evaluating new research around health claims you need to consider what critics may be saying. Two detracting claims are that this research used surveys (which can be unreliable) to gather data, and also there was no baseline of pesticides in the participants’ systems to analyze along with the results. And like most research that is still in its early phases, groups like the American Cancer society are not quite ready to add organic to their standard recommendations.

So the jury is still out on organic, but this new study is promising, and it will likely spur more research on the topic. Before we can give you a definitive recommendation to eat organic food, we still need a bit more evidence. What, you may wonder, should you do in the meantime?

There does not appear to be any evidence to suggest the eating organic food is harmful, and it may actually do you a lot of good. So, if you can afford it, and you want to err on the side of caution, then buy organic.

That said, here are a few words about how to make sure the food you are choosing really is organic.

What does organic mean?

Marketers know that a lot of people want to eat organic food, so some of them simply slap the word “organic” on their packaging. This doesn’t mean that the food actually is organic. What you want to look for is the green and white USDA Organic seal. According to this group, “USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps between the farm and the store.”

The USDA has a rigorous organic certification process to back that seal of approval. Every operation that applies for organic certification undergoes careful inspection. For produce this means the fields, soil conditions, crop health, pest management, water systems, storage and equipment are all subject to scrutiny. For livestock the USDA inspects feed production, animal living conditions, health management (like vaccinations), and the health records of all the animals. Certification is renewed yearly.

What does the USDA Organic label actually mean?

When a food product has the USDA organic label on it, it means it has been grown or processed according to the following strict guidelines:

  • Produce must be grown in soil that has had no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides applied for three years prior to harvest.
  • Meat and dairy animals must be raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behavior, like the ability to graze and pasture. They have to have been fed 100% organic feed and not given antibiotics or hormones.
  • Mixed products must be made from organic ingredients. They also must not have artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.

Some foods that don’t have the USDA seal are still given the distinction “Made with organic [name of an ingredient]” by the USDA. Instead of being completely organic, this means the product contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices, like genetic engineering.

Whether you choose to shop organic or not, reading labels and choosing fresh foods will get you a long way toward improving your health. What we can definitively stand by are the American Cancer Society’s current recommendations to, “Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods.” This includes at least two and a half cups of fruits and vegetables, whole instead of refined grains, and limited meat and dairy products. If you have concerns about your health and the impact of the foods you eat, please contact our office today.