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Organic choices may minimize cancer risks

BY GUEST BLOGGER | AUGUST 9, 2011

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 (ewg.org) 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 cornucopia.org.

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.

The term organic is sometimes also used with regard to fish, but its meaning is murkier. Wild fish are not in a controlled situation where only organic feed is given. The organic label for fish also addresses sustainability – which is great for our environment. Farmed fish are raised very differently if they are vegetarians like tilapia (easy to feed organic feed) or carnivorous like most salmon (must be fed wild fish.) The standards are still being created. One useful resource is the Seafood Watch from the Monterey Aquarium (montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_recommendations.aspx)

Two final points about organic: One, the organic designation is expensive to achieve. Some of your local farmers may be following organic practices and avoiding the use of most synthetic pesticides, rBGH, antibiotics and other dangerous farming practices to your health and the environment. If you get to know your local farmers at a farmer's market or by visiting their farms, you may feel really good about supporting locally produced vegetables, fruits and meats even without an organic designation. Second, consider becoming an activist for organic. With some regularity, the designation is threatened. Let your local, state and federal officials know that you value these high standards as a means to protect your health and that of your family.

Victoria Maizes, MD, is the executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and professor of Medicine, Family Medicine and Public Health at University of Arizona. Maizes will co-facilitate the "Courageous Women, Fearless Living Retreat for Women Touched by Cancer" at Shambhala Mountain Center, Aug. 23-28 in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. For information about this retreat, visit shambhalamountain.org/programs/view/1551.

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COMMENTS

Great article! I observe kosher dietary laws and I find it both ironic and troubling that the "politics" of organic food designations are following the same path as kosher food - unnecessarily expensive approvals that just line someone's pockets.

Not mentioned in your article are the environmental/health costs of getting distant food to market. Shopping in-season at local Farmer's markets local not only allows us to get to know the people who grow our food and support our local economy, but also reduces added pollution which helps us all!
- Posted by Lori 8/10/11 9:18 AM

We are totally committed to organic foods and follow Dr. Maizes' suggestion in using EWG.org. We also utilize the EWG.org section "Skin Deep" to evaluate all products we use in our daily lives. Dr. Maizes is a talented and articulate medical professional who is expert in this field. The web sites she lists above offer positive additional resources. Her books are also full of educational information and advice.
- Posted by Lowell & Rebecca 9/6/11 3:24 PM

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