Should you choose organic?

Organic foods
Organic foods are increasingly available in “mainstream” grocery stores. But how do you decide if they are right for your shopping cart? We answer that question, and more.

A cancer diagnosis can make us re-evaluate many choices we make, including the foods we choose to eat or exclude from our diet. Organic foods are increasingly available in “mainstream” grocery stores. But how do you decide if they are right for your shopping cart?

Organic regulations apply to everything from seeds planted in the ground to agricultural practices. To be considered organic, foods must be certified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, artificial or genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.”

A 2014 Environmental Working Group (EWG) report suggests that consumers always buy organic when purchasing the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticides. However, other research on pesticide residues suggests that conventionally grown produce is not harming health.

All produce sold in the U.S. is subject to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on pesticide residue to ensure that exposure causes no risk of harmful effects in a lifetime. To be sure, it’s still a good idea to trim the outer leaves of greens and wash/soak fruits and vegetables with a produce wash or a vinegar-water rinse that’s one part vinegar to three parts water.

Studies are inconclusive as to whether the nutritional content of organic produce is better than non-organic. The American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society found the benefits of consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, organic or not, clearly outweighs any potential concerns about pesticide residue.

Similar federal regulations apply to meats. Facilities that process organic animal products are subject to inspection by the USDA. The animals must have living conditions that support natural behaviors, such as grazing or foraging. They must be fed organic feed and may not be given hormones or antibiotics. No artificial colors, preservatives or flavors can be added during processing.

While hormones are federally prohibited in the production of all pork and poultry, research suggests that any hormones ingested through food are broken down through the digestion process. Since hormones and antibiotics are present in higher concentrations in fatty tissues, it’s wise to choose leaner cuts of meat and lower-fat dairy products.

The USDA has not established an organic designation for fish. Seafood Watch and Food & Water Watch provide helpful pocket guides for healthy seafood choices.

There is currently no evidence that an organic diet will reduce the risk of cancer or cancer recurrence. Leading organizations on nutrition and cancer make no distinction between conventionally grown and organically produced foods in their recommendations. Whether you choose organic or non-organic foods, it’s important to limit processed foods because they lack whole grains and have added sugar content.

Learn more about good nutrition for cancer patients.