Organic food has become very popular, as a health conscious momentum continues to grow, in an effort to fight obesity, often linked to unhealthy eating habits. Consumers eat pesticide-free foods to reap major health benefits, but British researchers suggest organic doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. The study published in the British Journal of Cancer found women who eat organic and those who eat conventionally produced foods, face the same likelihood of developing cancer regardless of pesticides.

"This study adds to the evidence that eating organically grown food doesn't lower your overall cancer risk,” said Dr. Claire Knight, a health information manager for Cancer Research UK, in the press release. A large number of cancer-related deaths have been linked to dietary factors, such as smoking, drinking, a lack of exercise, and overall unhealthy eating habits like not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Now a team of researchers at Oxford University believes cancer risks are not about whether or not we choose to eat organic, but rather whether we’re getting enough fruits and vegetables in our diet.

To examine whether eating organic food reduced the risk of common cancers such as soft tissue sarcoma, breast cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, researchers used the Million Women Study to observe approximately 600,000 women aged 50 and over. The large cohort of women were asked whether they ate organic foods and were followed for cancer incidence over a period of nine years. Researchers would compare between 180,000 women who never ate organic food and 45,000 who “usually” or “always” chose organic, to compare the cancer risk of both groups.

The findings revealed there was no difference found in the overall cancer risk between women who eat organic foods and those who eat conventionally produced foods. The researchers were surprised to find there was a small increased risk of breast cancer in organic consumers, but they remain hesitant to establish this as a direct association. This incidence could be due to other factors like lifestyle or family history, or simply pure chance. Although choosing organic produce was associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, the study found a decreased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in consumers. However, the researchers remain cautious in establishing a direct link between eating organic and the lessened risk of this cancer.

The UK study does present limitations that affect the charity’s findings. The researchers did not monitor the women’s weight and physical activity on a regular basis throughout the study. Lifestyle and other factors are influential players when it comes to our health and cancer risk. A self-reported diet from the participants would’ve provided better insight into dietary factors that can or cannot reduce the risk of cancer since the development of the disease can occur throughout a prolonged period of time.

"In this large study of middle-aged women in the UK we found no evidence that a woman's overall cancer risk was decreased if she generally ate organic food,” said Professor Tim Key, a Cancer Research UK-funded scientist at Oxford University, The Telegraph reported. "More research is needed to follow-up our findings of a possible reduction in risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma." Cancer Research UK’s dismissal of the 21 percent decrease found in non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer in women who eat organic food has raised some eyebrows from organic food supporters like Peter Melchett, director of policy at the Soil Association. Melchett believes the charity has a “poor understanding of what pesticides are found in and how pesticides get into food.”

For the pesticide-conscious, Knight suggests “it’s a good idea to wash them before eating,” but this isn’t always feasible due to the presence of systematic pesticides. In conventional food production systems, systematic pesticides are in the plant, and not on it, which means we can’t wash or peel them away when we prepare food, according to Mother Earth News. The UK study seems to underscore the health problems pesticides may pose for us.

In the U.S, pesticides are regulated to ensure that it does not pose unreasonable risks to human health and to the environment. Several studies have shown that pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time. However, this is all contingent on how toxic the pesticide is and how much of it is consumed.

Organic foods reduce pesticide exposure and increase nutritional quality by keeping us healthy and eliminating the toxic effects of chemical agriculture. Also, pesticide-free foods contain higher antioxidant capacity, total polyphenols, flavonoids quercetin, and kaempferol, all which are nutritionally significant.

Source: Balkwill A, Beral V, Bradbury KE, et al. Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. British Journal of Cancer. 2014.