Food worries: do I have increased cancer risk if I don’t eat organic?

eat organicPeople recovering from cancer or hoping to lower their risk sometimes worry about chemicals used in conventional agriculture. When you eat organic food is that a smarter option? Here are some facts and tips about organic versus conventional foods, and what you can do to maximize your diet’s health benefits.

Are organic foods better for your health?

When it comes to health benefits, there have not been any direct studies on humans to show that organic foods can prevent cancer – or other diseases – more effectively than conventionally grown foods. So far, there is also no consistent evidence that organic food is any more nutritious (higher in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients) than conventionally grown foods.

Do only organic fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of cancer?

No. What is important is to eat fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods regardless of whether they are grown conventionally or organically. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains should form the central part of a person’s diet, regardless of whether they are grown conventionally or organically. Plant foods offer vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals, so they have real cancer-fighting abilities. Also, replacing higher calorie foods with healthful plant foods can help with weight control, which can help protect against some cancers.

Are the terms “organic” and “natural” the same?

Natural does not mean organic. The term “natural” applies broadly to foods that are free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients that do not occur naturally in the foods. To be called natural, meat and poultry must be minimally processed in a method that does not fundamentally change the raw product.

However, organic refers not only to the food itself, but also to how it was produced. Organic foods are crops and livestock grown without any synthetic chemicals, hormones, antibiotic agents, genetic engineering or irradiation at organic farms. When you see the term organic, it is a guarantee that no toxic synthetic pesticide or chemical fertilizers are used in production, and no antibiotics or growth hormones are given to animals.

Tips for minimizing your exposure to fertilizers and pesticides

  • Washing: The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends that all fresh fruits and vegetables be thoroughly rinsed under running water, rather than soaking or dunking. This removes most surface residues along with dirt and bacterial contamination. The FDA also advises against using soaps and detergents to wash produce since they contain chemicals not safe for human consumption.
  • Peeling and trimming: Discard the outer layers of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce or cabbage. Peeling fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, potatoes, and carrots will help to remove the surface residues. Fiber may be lost in peeling however.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables: This will give you a better mix of nutrients and also reduce your potential exposure to a single pesticide.

Take the next step:

  • If you would like to learn more about eating healthy or reducing your risk of cancer through healthy lifestyle changes, contact a Cancer Center Registered Dietitian at 1-877-907-0859.
  • Learn more about food additives, safety and organic foods from the American Cancer Society.
  • Choosing colorful foods is a great way to eat a well-rounded diet, say our Cancer Center dietitians.

U-M CCC dietitians NEWRegistered dietitians who are specially trained in the field of oncology nutrition provide cancer nutrition services at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. They focus on assessing the individual dietary and nutrition needs of each patient and providing practical, scientifically sound assistance.


Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.