Is it Necessary to Eat All Organic?

Choosing whether to eat organic or to not eat organic is a personal decision. When it comes to research, no single study tells the whole story about the impact of organic food. And research around organic is contradictory, which can feel quite confusing when trying to determine what’s best for you. 

Before we dive into what the science says about organic foods and cancer, let’s define the term “organic.” 

USDA Certified Organic means food is grown or produced without synthetic pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. The federal guidelines for organic foods include standards ranging from soil conditions where vegetables and fruits grow to how animals are raised. To read more about organic food guidelines, click here.  

What Research Says About How Organic Foods Impact Cancer Risk 

A French study, published in 2019 (called NutriNet-Santé), found eating organic food, “most of the time” versus, “never” lowered the risk of certain cancers, specifically post-menopausal breast cancer and some lymphomas. This study made headlines and caused many to wonder if they need to eat all organic to prevent cancer. 

Let’s Dig Into the Details

The NutriNet-Santé study lasted seven years and had 70,000 participants. That’s a lot of people and a fair amount of time, but even with this study design, it’s impossible to rule out how much other lifestyle behaviors, like physical activity and not smoking, contributed to the results.  

And as mentioned before, other large studies contradict the NutriNet-Sante findings. For example, the Million Women Study of more than 620,000 participants in the United Kingdom found no reduction in overall cancer risk for people who reported eating organic. In fact, there was a small increase in breast cancer risk among those who reported “usually” or “always” eating organic compared to those who said they “never” ate organic. If this seems complex to you, you're not alone! 

How to Interpret the Research 

The first thing to know is that participants in these studies weren’t fed an organic diet. They completed self-administered questionnaires describing how and what they remember eating. While these surveys are valid tools for exploring nutrition questions, they don’t prove cause and effect.  

We don’t have large studies that compare two groups—one fed organic food and the other conventional food. Even if we did, those groups would need to be followed for decades before any type of conclusion could be made.  

What we do have is a systematic review of 35 major studies on the potential health benefits of organic foods. This 2020 review found only one link between organic foods and a lower rate of cancer— non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The overall conclusion of this review was that eating organic foods does not lead to health benefits.  

Is Organic Food Healthier in General? 

Organic foods are marketed as cancer preventive based on the idea that they have more nutrients and fewer chemicals, but these issues are also topics of debate. Some research finds that organic produce has higher levels of nutrients and less chemical residue, but we don’t have direct evidence that these things in our food supply lead to lower cancer rates.   

There is one consistent finding across decades of nutrition research, and it’s something you’ve heard before: eating vegetables and fruits (even conventionally grown versions) helps reduce the risk of many cancers.  

The Bottom Line 

As previously stated, choosing whether to eat organic or not is a personal decision. Scientific research doesn’t show the benefits of organic food across the board when it comes to cancer. And eating all organic, or even mostly organic, isn’t affordable or available for many.  

The most consistent thing we know is that eating vegetables and fruits helps protect against cancer regardless of whether those foods are conventional or organic. 

Action Steps to Take 

  • Wash fresh vegetables and fruits in running water, even if they’re organic!  

    • Washing produce rinses off both dirt and chemical residues.  

    • Water has proven as effective as produce soaps/washes on the market to clean the produce. 

  • Gently scrub, but don’t peel (if possible)!  

    • Peeling vegetables and thin-skinned fruits may eliminate pesticide residue, but there are many nutrients in the skin of vegetables and fruits that you lose out on when you peel those foods. 

    • If you usually peel things like carrots, sweet potatoes, and beets, try a produce scrub brush so you can leave the peel on but still clean the food well.  

  • Be mindful of times you might think, “I can’t eat that, it’s not organic.”  

    • This viewpoint doesn’t align with the evidence to date and can cause people to lose out on enjoying plant-based foods that have potential health benefits.