Is Organic Food Safer?

From Dr. Fuhrman's book Disease-Proof Your Child.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is up 10.7 percent over the last twenty years. Brain cancer is up 30 percent; osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, is up 50 percent; and testicular cancer is up 60 percent in men under thirty. No one can tell us why. Scientific studies provide clues that are difficult to ignore:

  • Children whose parents work with pesticides are more likely to suffer leukemia, brain cancer, and other afflictions.
  • Studies show that childhood leukemia is related to increased pesticide use around the house.
  • Nine studies reviewed by the National Cancer Institute showed a correlation between pesticide exposure and brain cancer.
  • Exposure to weed killers in childhood increases asthma risk by more than fourfold.
All the dangers stated above are not the result of eating pesticide-treated produce. This clear link between pesticides and cancer is a result of chemical use around the home and farm.1 Clearly, it is not logical to eat organic food to avoid pesticide residue and then spray our homes with carcinogenic insecticides and weed killers used liberally in and around homes, interior plants, lawns, gardens, and even schools.

Because young children are the ones most susceptible to toxic exposures, the National Academy of Science has issued warnings and position papers stating that exposure to pesticides in early life can increase cancer rates down the road as well as increasing the occurrence of mental and immune system disorders.2

We must be careful not to expose our children to chemical cleaners, insecticides, and weed killers on our lawns. Chemicals used in pressure-treated wood used to build lawn furniture, decks, fences, and swings sets have been shown to place children at risk. When children are around, we must be vigilant to maintain a chemical-free environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the majority of pesticides now in use are probable or possible cancer causers. Studies of farm workers who work with pesticides suggest a link between pesticide use and brain cancer, Parkinson's disease, multiple myloma, leukemia, lymphoma, and cancers of the stomach, prostate, and testes.3 But the question remains, does the low level of pesticides remaining on our food present much of a danger?

Some scientists argue that the extremely low level of pesticide residue remaining on produce is insignificant and that there are naturally occurring toxins in all natural foods that are more significant. The large amount of studies performed on the typical pesticide-treated produce have demonstrated that consumption of produce, whether organic or not, is related to lower rates of cancer and disease protection, not higher rates. Certainly, it is better to eat fruits and vegetables grown and harvested using pesticides than not eating them at all. The health benefits of eating phytochemical-rich produce greatly outweigh any risk pesticide residues might pose.

It has been shown that women with higher levels of pesticides in their bloodstream have a higher risk of breast cancer.4 However, the pesticide shown in these studies to be connected to cancer was DDT, which is no longer used in food production and was banned by the U.S. government in 1972. The problem is that DDT is still in the environment and finds its way back into our food supply, predominately via shellfish and fish consumption. So purchasing organic fruit and vegetables will not lower our exposure to DDT if we are eating fish and shellfish regularly.

Keep in mind, there is a significantly larger exposure to toxic chemicals in animal products compared to plant food. By eating lower on the food chain and reducing our intake of animal products, one automatically reduces exposure to toxic chemicals. Plants have the least fat-soluble pollutants, animals that eat plants have more, and animals that eat animals have the highest levels of these toxic compounds. Fish that eat smaller fish will store the toxic compounds from every fish it ever ate, including all the fish eaten by the fish it just made a meal of. It is important to avoid lobster, shellfish, catfish, and predator fish such as tuna, bluefish, striped bass, shark, and swordfish, where toxins such as PCB, DDT, dioxin, and mercury are likely to build up due to the compounding effects of eating lots of smaller fish. One gets larger doses of more toxic compounds from these contaminated animal products than would be possible to take in from produce.

Organic food is certainly your best bet, to further limit exposure to toxic chemicals. No one knows for sure how much risk exists from pesticide residue on produce, but here's what we do know: the younger you are, the more your cells are susceptible to damage from toxins. It seems wise to feed our young children organic food whenever possible.

Of course, wash your vegetables and fruit with water and when possible, use a drop of dishwashing detergent and then rinse well to remove all detergent residues for a little more efficient cleaning. Specialty pesticide removal products have not clearly demonstrated any more effectiveness than mild soap and water.

Besides the heightened exposure to chemicals and pesticides from animal products, the most hazardous pesticides are used on some plant foods responsible for the majority of the plant-food-related dietary risk. These foods with the most pesticide residue are: strawberries, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, cherries, apples, and celery. Imported produce is also more likely to contain higher levels of pesticides.5

There is another reason to feed our children organic food when possible. Organic food usually has more nutrients than conventional.6 One study performed at the University of California at Davis found that foods grown organically had higher amounts of flavonoids, which have protective effects against both heart disease and cancer. The researchers found flavonoids were more than 50 percent higher in organic corn and strawberries. They theorized that when plants are forced to deal with the stress of insects, they produce more of these compounds, which are beneficial to humans.7 Overall, organic foods taste better, and organic agriculture protects farmers and our environment.

1. Leiss JK, Savitz DA. Home pesticide use and childhood cancer: a case controlled study. Am J Public Health 1995;85(2):249-252. Infante-Rivard C, Labuda D, Krajinovic M, Sinnett D. Risk of childhood leukemia associated with exposure to pesticides and with gene polymorphisms. Epidemiology 1999;10(5):481-487. Daniels JL, Olshan AF, Savitz DA. Pesticides and childhood cancers. Environ Health Perspect 1997;105(10): 1068-1077. Zahm SH, Ward MH. Pesticides and childhood cancer. Environ Health Perspect 1998;106(Suppl3):893-908.

2. Bruckner JV. Differences in sensitivity of children and adults to chemical toxicity: the NAS panel report. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 2000;31(3):280-282. Lefferts LY. Pesticide residues variability and acute dietary assessment: a consumer perspective. Food Addit Contam 2000;17(7):511-517

3. Sanderson WT, Talaska G, Zaebest D, et al. Pesticide prioritization for a brain cancer case-control study. Environ Res 1997;74(2):133-144. Zahm SH, Blair A. Cancer among migrant and seasonal farmworkers: an epidemiologic review and research agenda. Am J Ind Med 1993;24(6):753-766.

4. Wolff MS, Toniolo PG, Lee EW, et al. Blood levels of organochlorine residues and risk of breast cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 1993;85(8):648-652.

5. Reynolds JD. International pesticide trade: is there any hope for the effective regulation of controlled substances? Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, 1997;13(1). Whitford F, Mason L, Winter C. Pesticides and food safety. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, PPP-22, Jan. 17, 2005.

6. Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Alt Compl Med 2001;7(2):161-173.

7. Grinder-Pederson L, Rasmussen SE, Bugel S, et al. Effect of diets based on foods from conventional versus organic production on intake and excretion of flavonoids and markers of antioxidative defense in humans. J Agric Food Chem 2003;51(19): 5671-5676.

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Comments (17) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Anna - December 7, 2005 12:32 PM

Just encountered your site for the first time today (Dec. 7/005) with the article Is Organic Food Safer? I thought it was a good, balanced outlook on this topic. Will look at further.

Henry Abbott - December 7, 2005 3:19 PM

More information on the same topic (I can't vouch for it, but it's at least worth a read): the Organic Trade Association has a list of studies showing that organic food has more beneficial micronutrients of various kinds and less pesticide. To see the list, copy and paste this address:

lena - December 8, 2005 5:16 AM

I think it is important that you point out that non-organic vegetables are better than no vegetables. That may sound like common sense, but I know that I got so scared by the environment-movement, that I only dared to buy organic fruits and veggies, even though I did not have much money. I restricted myself to one or two pieces of fruit a day, and 200 grams of veggies. It was only after reading E2L that I realized how stupid my reasoning was, and I started to use non-organic produce.

I think the data that organic produce hs more micronutrients is fascinating, but still, the difference I have seen is at most 30-50%, whereas the price of organic foods is (at least here) more like 200-1000% of that of regular produce. I now eat four apples a day for the same price as I used to eat one apple. I still think I am healthier now, and my body should be able to handle the little bit of pesticides, because I am eating such a healthy diet.

Elijah Lynn - December 8, 2005 3:18 PM

Great topic. Very good article!!

Kenny Point - February 18, 2006 10:09 AM

Great article, I think it makes sense to consume as much organically grown produce as possible. And the best way is to grow your own. In addition to knowing for sure how your food was raised, you also get the added benefit of produce that's been harvested and used fresh from the garden with no nutrient losses during storage or transportation from the other side of the country.

George - September 14, 2006 4:45 PM

How about this article about the dangers of organic produce?

Ryan Stephenson - October 24, 2006 7:31 PM

Althought I agree that their are harmfull aspects to using chemical pesticides on plants - we need to embrace the furture of our agriculture and Accept the New Green Revolution with open arms!

- Ryan Stephenson
Grade: 12

joebilly - May 15, 2007 4:10 AM

organic food is better

Victor - May 27, 2007 5:53 PM

There is no substantial proof that organic food is more nutritious than conventional produce, as for the taste, it's very subjective. I do agree that eating plenty of vegetables and fruit will minimize your exposure, but also, consider where the organic produce has come from. If it has been shipped all around the world, it left a bigger impact on the environment than if it's from a local farmer. A combination of regular produce and organic produce for those on his list and the list provided by the EWG would be best to minimize longterm exposure to the same residue. Also, buying milk from cows not treated with rBST is important, in my opinion.

April M. - July 11, 2007 5:39 PM

I do organically grow some of my own fruit and veggies and I tend to patronize local farmers' markets for most of my produce. I have recently heard that organic farming makes up only 10% of our farms, so how do we have all of this "organic" produce? My parents actually lived next to an "organic" farm that regularly used pesticides illegally. Now i just find myself buying what looks good and washing like crazy.

Lannah - April 24, 2008 7:58 PM

I eat meat that has beem pumped full of steriods, drink milk with god-only-knows what in it, etc and am healthier than friends on the "organic diet". You can get cancer from just about anything, so all of the panicking is getting ridiculous. The sun causes cancer, lets avoid that too! Wake up and realize that the world will never be a safe place, so just accept it!

Angela - October 9, 2008 9:34 PM

Very well written article

stamppot - October 19, 2008 6:32 PM

Organic food has more tast.

Celeste Stoddard - February 4, 2009 10:24 AM

Do you have a list, of must buy organic fruits and vegs, and ok not to buy organic fruits and vegs? Thank you.........

ray - March 29, 2009 3:50 AM

...but the WHO say cancer rates in the west have stablised and this quote from a EPA document says: Do Pesticide Residues Add to the Risk of Developing Cancer?
The current risk for an individual living in the United States of developing cancer from any cause is 1 in 4. This means there is a 25 percent chance that each of us could develop some type of cancer (including minor ones) regardless of
our lifestyle, family history, or dietary habits. Pesticide residues on raw commodities permitted by the EPA’s current guidelines for allowing residues of a pesticide determined to cause cancer on test animals have been estimated to
increase that potential risk by only 0.0001 percent. According to toxicologists, this is less risk than eating one peanut butter sandwich or one raw mushroom a day, or drinking one alcoholic beverage a day. Recent information available from the
National Cancer Institute indicates “the age adjusted mortality (death) rate for all cancers combined except lung cancer has been declining since 1950 for all individual age groups except 85 and above.” In addition, life expectancy is
steadily increasing in the United States while infant mortality is decreasing.

caglar keskin - February 16, 2010 12:28 PM

I live in a village and work in agriculturing. We produce organic foods and i try to read everything about them.
This information is very useful for me. I also found another useful guide about organic foods;

Shannon from GA - May 25, 2010 7:33 PM

I have been eating a 50/50 organic diet for about 4 years now. I can taste chemicals
in food often. I have read several articles that claim their studies show there is no
taste difference. I don't understand how that can be when my husband, who could care less about the organic movement, can taste the chemicals too now.

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