Eating organic food – what are the health benefits?


National public health systems have long been conflicted on the health benefits of organic produce. The latest conclusion of the English National Health Service (NHS) has established that an organic diet alone should not be relied upon to reduce cancer. 


Organic fruit and vegetables avoid man-made fertilisers, pesticides or genetic modification.  Organic meat, poultry, dairy and eggs come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones.


Research conducted in France monitored 69,000 people over five years, observing their diet and any cancerous developments.  The study was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. The aim was to see whether eating organic food bears any correlation to cancer. It was found that those who ate the most organic food had a 24% lower risk of developing cancer, compared to those who ate the lowest amount of organic produce. Specific links were made to breast cancer and lymphomas.


Although the research has not been confirmed, the researchers conclude that organic food could be a promising strategy in preventing cancer. However, Tom Sanders, Professor at King’s College London has said that promoting organic food as a preventive strategy of cancer to the general population is overblown. Equally, the English NHS found that individuals with predominantly organic based diets also developed cancer, albeit less than individuals who ate the least amount of organic food.  


The English NHS have concluded that this research alone cannot prove that eating organic food will prevent cancer. Organic food may go some way to live a healthier lifestyle, but it cannot be said to prevent cancer. In particular, evidence to suggest a specific link between organic food and breast cancer and lymphomas were based on too smaller numbers to conclude that there is a genuine link.


Perhaps most significant are the sociodemographics and lifestyles of those eating predominantly organic diets. Generally, individuals who ate more organic food had healthier lifestyles in general, partaking in regular exercise and eating more fruit and vegetables. This is thought to be a leading factor in reducing their likelihood of developing cancer, rather than the organic food alone.


The latest position is a continuation of previous advice. The English NHS found in 2009 that the nutritional content of organic and conventional foods is much the same. Therefore, the NHS concluded in 2013 that more evidence based information should be made available about organic foods, as organic labels have been used as a marketing tool. Consumers should therefore not mistake organic to mean healthy.


There is nothing conclusive to suggest that organic food is healthier, or can reduce the likelihood of cancer. What can only be recommended is a healthy diet, high in fruit, vegetables and fibre and low in processed meat, in addition to regular exercise and reduced alcohol and tobacco intake.  This ensures that ‘health’ is accessible to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, as organic food can cost up to 89% more than ordinary produce.


To optimise health, the World Health Organisation (WHO) have recommended eating less red and processed meat, as they are carcinogenic to humans. The report includes beef, veal, pork and lamb as red meat, and processed meat as any meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or altered in another way. This means that there is a link between red meat, processed meat and cancer. Processed meat has been identified as more harmful (Group 1 carcinogenic), which is comparable to tobacco and asbestos. This does not mean that processed meat is as dangerous as tobacco and asbestos, but it identifies processed meat as an agent causing cancer. Analysis by the English NHS has found that there was sufficient evidence to link red meat consumption with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer, and processed meat with stomach cancer.  


The findings from the WHO report support current public health recommendations in England and Wales. The Department of Health have recommended that less than 70g of red and processed meat should be consumed per day. To reduce a large amount of red and processed meat, the NHS have recommended switching to chicken or fish, having meat-free days, adding beans and pulses as a substitute, or using chicken or vegetarian sausages.


Consuming organic food as a mechanism for reducing cancer or to maintain a healthy diet must be met with caution. Organic food may have environmental benefits, so if this is your intention, it may be favourable. Organic food therefore remains a matter for individual preference, with a healthy diet being achieved through conventional foods or organic produce.