By Michele S. Byers
A trip to the supermarket, or to a local farmers market or farm stand, offers a dazzling array of fruits and veggies. Which should you pick? If you are looking for the healthiest choices, head straight for the organic section.
Organic foods are those grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, as well as other materials such as hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms – all of which are used in conventional agriculture.
Organic farming practices include the use of cover crops, manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health.
A groundbreaking study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2018 found that eating organic foods can dramatically reduce your risk of developing cancer.
The study, led by a team of French scientists, tracked the diets of nearly 69,000 adults over four-plus years. Those who consumed the most organic foods were 25% less likely to develop cancer – especially lymphomas and post-menopausal breast cancer – than those who rarely or never ate organic foods.
“Although our findings need to be confirmed, promoting organic food consumption in the general population could be a promising preventive strategy against cancer,” said Julia Baudry, the study’s lead author.
More than three-quarters of the study subjects were women and the average age was the mid-40s. Study volunteers were scored on how often they ate 16 organic products, including fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, ready-to-eat meals, vegetable oils and condiments, dietary supplements and other products.
Over the course of the study, volunteers developed a total of 1,340 cancers. The most prevalent was breast cancer (459), followed by prostate cancer (180), skin cancer (135), colorectal cancer (99) and non-Hodgkin lymphomas (47).
Comparing the participants’ organic food scores with cancer cases, the researchers found that people who ate the most organic food were 25% less likely to develop cancer. Specifically, the study found they were 73% less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and 21% less likely to develop post-menopausal breast cancer.
The French study is just one of many that have found links between organic foods and improved health.
Many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides. Washing them is not completely effective. Even if you use soap and water, traces still remain.
Agricultural chemicals linked to cancer include the pesticides malathion and diazinon, and the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of test data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 70% of non-organically grown produce sold in the United States is contaminated with potentially harmful pesticide residues. The Department of Agriculture does not test for herbicides.
The Environmental Working Group has a helpful shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce. The guide includes an annual “Dirty Dozen” list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residue, as well as a “Clean Fifteen” list of conventional produce with the lowest levels of pesticide residue.
The 2020 “Dirty Dozen” list includes strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and hot peppers. The report also identified non-organic raisins – made from dried grapes – as being especially high in pesticide residues.
The Environmental Working Group points out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not test for all chemicals used in crop production. Notably, it does not analyze glyphosate, the most heavily used herbicide in America.
The Environmental Working Group claims that high levels of glyphosate can be found in several grains and beans, such as oats and chickpeas.
The “Clean Fifteen” list of conventionally grown produce included avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, onions, papayas, frozen sweet peas, eggplants, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbages, honeydew melons and kiwis. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, according to the Environmental Working Group.
For the sake of your health and that of your loved ones, consider going organic! If you can’t go completely organic, you can at least avoid the “Dirty Dozen.”
Going organic and supporting organic farmers also helps protect soils, water and air. Organic farming techniques – especially “regenerative” methods – even enhance the soil’s ability to store carbon, which is important in efforts to slow climate change.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org