As the organic world convenes in Nuremberg, Germany for BIOFACH 2019 under the congress theme: ‘The Organic System: Healthy in a Holistic Approach’, IFOAM – Organics International finds the NutriNet-Santé Study and related Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) publication results particularly salient.
Launched in France in 2009, the NutriNet-Santé Study is a long-term, web-based comparative study, known as a prospective cohort study, that compares lifestyles, dietary patterns, and health – this includes the health impacts of organic food consumption – of 160,000 adult volunteers over ten years.
The NutriNet-Santé Study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the institutional review board of the French Institute for Health and Medical Research and the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés. The study is supported by the French government through funding from several public institutions and a dedicated Research Ministry grant. The 160,000 study participants are comprised predominantly of women (76%) with a mean age of 45 years. Participation in the study was voluntary. At the study’s outset in 2009, participants were asked to regularly report out on their life from diet and health to organic food consumption by filling out two series of questionnaires. 20,000 study participants also submitted blood and urine samples for analysis.
Following a detailed statistical analysis using multi-year data, the study found that high organic food scores were inversely associated with the overall risk of cancer.
Within France, the study revealed that regular consumers of organic products exhibit the following characteristics:
Profile of the French Organic Food Consumer
- Specific Socio-demographic Characteristics: higher education as well as physical activity levels, lower rates of smoking, and higher incomes;
- Healthier Dietary Patterns: more plant food-based -fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grain cereals, tree nuts, vegetable oils-, less red meat, and dairy. Their diets also aligned more closely to the national nutritional recommendations;
- Less Chemical Exposure: less exposed to various synthetic chemical pesticides via contaminated foods, significantly lower pesticide residue levels (organophosphates and pyrethroïds) in urine – this aligns with other studies;
- Lower Obesity Level: markedly reduced probability of obesity in men and women, including after a 3-year follow-up (-31%) – this was also found in recent studies in Germany and USA, and
- Lower Disease Rates: significantly reduced probability (- 31%) of exhibiting metabolic syndromes (e.g., elevated waist circumference associated with hypertension and metabolic imbalance, a key risk factor for cardiovascular diseases) – this was also recently observed in the US for diabetes.
Journal of the American Medical Association utilizes NutriNetSanté Study Data on Organic Food Consumption
Since 2013, NutriNetSanté Study data, generally obtained from some 30,000 – 70,000 adults, has been used to generate publications within numerous peer-reviewed, international journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – Internal Medicine. In October 2018, JAMA issued a scientific publication entitled ‘Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption with Cancer Risk’. This publication was based on NutriNetSanté Prospective Cohort Study’ data, and looked at the association between organic food consumption and the risk of cancer in the cohort of French adults.
As part of JAMA’s publication, available data on dietary intake and organic food consumption was collected from participants. Study participants reported their consumption frequency of 16 food products labeled as organic. Consumption frequency responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘occasionally’ or ‘most of the time’. Submissions were then used to calculate an organic food score, ranging from 0 to 32 points, and participants were sorted into four quartiles based on this organic food score.
The Health Implications of Organic Food Consumption
Among the study’s 68,946 participants (78.0% female, mean age at outset: 44.2 years old), 1,340 first incident cancer cases were identified at the study’s 4.6 year follow-up. The most prevalent cancers identified were: breast cancer with 459 occurances, prostate cancer with 180 occurances, skin cancer with 135 occurances, colorectal cancer with 99 occurances, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma with 47 occurances, and other lymphomas with 15 occurances. Appropriate statistical methods were used to calculate the estimated the risk of cancer in association with organic food scores.
A five-point increase in a participant’s organic score, which translates roughly to a 15% increase in organic food consumption, resulted in an 8% lower cancer risk. For postmenopausal breast cancer, this risk was reduced by a significant margin of 34%. For lymphomas, the risk was reduced even further, by 76%. It should be noted that these results were observed after adjustments for potential co-founders.
What are the Possible Explanations for these Results?
One significant explanation for the negative correlation between organic food consumption frequency and adiposity, or disease risk, might be attributed to the prohibition of synthetic chemical pesticides in organic farming, which leads to much lower frequencies or the absence of contamination in organic foods when compared to conventional foods. The absence of chemicals in organic farming has also repeatedly been observed to significantly reduce pesticide levels in urine. About 60% of chemical pesticides are recognized as endocrine disruptors by academic researchers. Some of these chemicals have even been called ‘obesogens’ due to their observed impacts on adiposity and diabetes. Even very low, chronic doses of such pesticide mixtures can cause these negative health impacts.
The high antioxidant and fatty acid levels in organic food could also account for the study’s results. However, due to a lack of a composition database, these specific factors are not accounted for in the present calculations.
Additional Environmental Implications
In our latest scientific publication, released in early 2019, data from the NutriNetSanté Study cohort also showed that plant-based dietary patterns of organic food consumers noticeably reduces energy use, land use, greenhouse gas emissions (in relation to food production), as well as exposure to chemical pesticides.
When viewed comprehensively, the French cohort observations show that regular organic food consumers exhibit a stronger adherence to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s definition of a sustainable diet, as established in 2010.
Kesse-Guyot, J. Baudry, S. Hercberg, D. Lairon : PlosOne 2013, Nutrients 2015, 2017, 2017,; British Journal of Nutrition 2015, 2016, 2017; Public Health Nutrition 2016; European Journal of Nutrition 2017; Nutrition Journal 2018; Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology 2018; JAMA internal medicine 2018, and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2019.