By: Sairah Sheikh, PharmD Candidate c/o 2024
In a world where people are becoming increasingly health-conscious, organic food is of interest to many. It is often seen as the pinnacle of healthy food, although may not be affordable for all. Those who can afford it spend thousands of dollars a year on organic food and see it as a worthy investment in their health. The global organic food market is worth billions of dollars, and its sales grow steadily every year.1
A large prospective study conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) followed over 623,080 women for 9.3 years to determine if organic food consumption reduced cancers like soft tissue sarcoma, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other common cancers like colorectum cancer, lung cancer, and stomach cancer. The researchers of the study placed the women into three groups: those who never ate organic food, those who sometimes ate it, and those who usually/always ate it. The study found no decrease in cancer risk for the women who adhered to an organic diet, except for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which was found to decrease in women who consumed mainly organic food. For instance, 8.65% of the women who usually/always ate organic food developed cancer, 8.54% of the women who sometimes ate organic food developed cancer, and 8.81% of the women who never ate organic food developed cancer.2 Therefore, this study indicates that organic food has no effect on cancer development.
A systematic review published in the National Library of Medicine analyzed disease outcomes in people who ate organic food versus people who did not. Overall, the authors did not find any significant difference between diseases. Some studies in the systematic review showed no significant difference between organic and non-organic foods in terms of levels of beta-carotene and lycopene in tomatoes, carotenoid concentrations in carrots, and levels of antioxidant, glucose, and cholesterol generally. In addition, those who consumed organic and non-organic apples had similar uric acid levels.3 Other studies in the review reported some differences between those who eat organic foods and those who do not. For example, a study was conducted in Italy and had people eat a Mediterranean diet with non-organic food, followed by the same diet with organic food. They found significant differences in the organic group, which included increased antioxidant effect, decreased body weight, and decreased inflammatory biomarkers such as interleukin (IL)-1, IL-6, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), and homocysteine compared to the non-organic group.3 Additionally, in a study of 35,107 mothers of male infants in Norway, it was seen that mothers who ate organic vegetables “often” or “mostly” had a lower risk of preeclampsia than those who reported “never/rarely” or “sometimes” eating organic vegetables.3 Furthermore, the Nutri-Net Santé group found that high organic food scores were negatively associated with the overall risk of cancer, with a specific decreased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma and postmenopausal breast cancer.3 However, it is important to note that people who consume organic food more often tend to also have healthier lifestyle habits,3 which may decrease the risk of getting cancer.
The Mediterranean diet is an excellent option for those looking for affordable food choices with improved health outcomes, as it has been proven to lower the risk of disease. The diet consists of lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils; a moderate amount of fish and dairy; healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil; poultry instead of red meat; and little to no sweets or sugary drinks.4 A study of nearly 26,000 women found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had a 25% reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease over 12 years.5 With heart disease being a leading cause of death worldwide, this information is important. Additionally, the antioxidant-rich Mediterranean diet has been found to keep telomeres at long lengths. Telomeres are parts of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and longer telomeres are associated with a lower risk of developing chronic diseases and a higher life expectancy. A Nurses’ Health Study done on 4,676 healthy middle-aged women observed that the women adhered to the Mediterranean diet and were found to have longer telomere lengths. Another Nurses’ Health Study following over 10,000 women ages 57 to 61 examined the association between the Mediterranean diet and aging. They defined healthy aging as “living to 70 years or more, and having no chronic diseases (e.g., type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, lung disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer) or major declines in mental health, cognition, and physical function.”⁵ The study found that the women who followed the Mediterranean diet were 46% more likely to “age healthfully”. Another study done on nearly 7,800 pregnant women found that following the Mediterranean diet closely was associated with a 21% lower risk of developing an adverse pregnancy outcome such as preeclampsia, gestational hypertension, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, or stillbirth.6
In conclusion, although organic food is found to have some added nutritional benefits, there is little evidence to suggest it reduces the risk of disease. The minimal benefits of organic food do not appear to justify its cost. A Mediterranean diet has been proven to reduce disease risk while being affordable.
- U.S. organic industry survey 2023. Organic Trade Association. Accessed July 12, 2023. https://ota.com/market-analysis/organic-industry-survey/organic-industry-survey
- Bradbury KE, Balkwill A, Spencer EA, et al. Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer. 2014;110(9):2321-2326. doi:10.1038/bjc.2014.148
- Vigar V, Myers S, Oliver C, Arellano J, Robinson S, Leifert C. A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health?. Nutrients. 2019;12(1):7. Published 2019 Dec 18. doi:10.3390/nu12010007
- Mediterranean diet. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed March 25, 2023. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16037-mediterranean-diet.
- Diet review: Mediterranean diet. The Nutrition Source. Published April 4, 2022. Accessed April 2, 2023. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/mediterranean-diet/.
- Makarem N, Chau K, Miller EC, et al. Association of a Mediterranean Diet Pattern With Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes Among US Women. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(12):e2248165. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.48165