Organic choices may minimize cancer risks

Victoria Maizes, MD, executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and professor of Medicine, Family Medicine and Public Health at University of Arizona, shares her knowledge on organic products.

One of the most common questions I receive from people with a cancer diagnosis relates to the value of organic food. Simply put, my patients want to know, "How important is it to eat an organic diet?" Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, but here is the advice I give to those who are interested in learning more about organic food and beverages.

Clearly, organic produce, dairy, chicken and meat cost more. At the same time, we know that choosing organic could reduce your exposure to pesticides, which may increase the risk of cancer directly or indirectly through endocrine-disrupting actions. It also may reduce exposure to antibiotic byproducts, arsenic and genetically modified foods. Here are some strategies I give my patients to help make wise organic choices.

The Environmental Working Group ( publishes a list each year ranking the amount of pesticides in the 53 most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables. Choosing organic for the most contaminated fruits and vegetables at the top of the list, the so-called "dirty dozen," and buying conventional for those with the least contamination, the "clean fifteen," can lessen your exposure to pesticides and save money on purchasing organics. EWG has calculated that if you choose five servings of fruits and vegetables a day from the clean fifteen instead of the dirty dozen, you will reduce your daily consumption of pesticide by 92 percent.

Organic dairy protects you from a different set of problems. While outlawed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union, the U.S. allows use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in dairy production. Two problems emerge: While cattle treated with rBGH produce 10 to15 percent more milk, they also have a higher incidence of mastitis, necessitating more frequent treatment with antibiotics. Cows treated with rBGH also have elevated levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in their meat and their milk. In people, higher IGF-1 levels may be associated with an increased risk of colon, breast and prostate cancers. A useful website that rates the quality and ethical issues around organic dairies is

Purchasing organic chicken is important for yet another set of reasons. Chickens are not treated with hormones. Instead, many are given Roxarsone, an FDA-approved form of arsenic. Roxarsone is used to promote growth of the animals, feed efficiency and to improve pigmentation. In the chicken's digestive track it is metabolized into arsenite and arsenate – inorganic forms of arsenic, which are carcinogens. It is also widely found in chicken manure used as fertilizer on many of our crops. In July 2011, Pfizer subsidiary, Alpharma, agreed to voluntarily suspend sales of Roxarsone. This may not fully solve the problem however, because there are other arsenic-based products on the market besides Roxarsone.

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