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back to article Organic food: Pricey, not particularly healthy, won't save you from cancer

One of the primary drivers of the growth in organic food sales over the last couple of decades is the perception that organic food is healthier than conventionally farmed food. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? After all conventional crops depend on chemicals and organic food doesn't. And we all know that chemicals, in this case …

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Luxury item

I never thought about organic vegetables and fruit as being anything other than a better grown product which I occasionally buy because of the better taste. I'm not concerned about whether it's healthier or not, and in that regard this article is a red herring.

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Re: Luxury item

Not only is it a red herring (is that GM gone too far?) it seems from reading the Reg article that the science could have been more rigorous.

Given the relatively large sample size I guess we can allow for smoking, exercise, and other very relevant factors to average out across the groups but using "reported eating habits" to group these women seems a bit too vague - are people who report that they "always" eat organic being honest or trying to give what they think is the "better" answer? Are they eating mainly processed food? Do they eat a lot of (organic) meat?

With the caveat that I haven't read the original publication I'd say that it looks every bit as flimsy as the straw man it seems to be aimed at.

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Re: Luxury item

Well no. The organic movement contains an awful lot of people who think organic=natural=Good whereas using modern pesticides in agriculture=unnatural=Poison, irrespective of the effects/evidence.

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Re: Luxury item

Indeed. From my perspective, a better reason to buy it that some mysterious and intangible 'health' reason is that more organic food means less pesticides and nitrates being pumped into our water table and environment. I view my own health as somewhat less of a motivator than my countryside's.

I would also argue that ten years is not sufficient time for a study to really be of much use.

Even smoking 20 a day probably won't give you lung cancer in ten years, so what validity is the report? Very little I would suggest.

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Re: Luxury item

"Given the relatively large sample size I guess we can allow for smoking, exercise, and other very relevant factors to average out across the groups"

On the contrary, I would expect people who care enough to buy organic would smoke less than average, excercise more than average etc and that this meta-difference would show up in the results... but even this seems not to be the case.

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Re: Luxury item

"On the contrary, I would expect people who care enough to buy organic would smoke less than average, excercise more than average etc and that this meta-difference would show up in the results... but even this seems not to be the case."

So I guess you will now be considering revising your assumption seeing as the alternative would be to believe that the products used in non-organic farming somehow counteract the effects of smoking and taking insufficient exercise.

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Re: Luxury item

Organic claims to be both healthier and better for the environment without proving either. Some light reading. Plenty more out there:

http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html

http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/06/synthetic-v-natural-pesticides/

I suspect, although noone has absolute proof, that it all rather depends on the individual application of organic or non-organic farming.

Flavour's a different matter. Personal choice init.

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Re: Luxury item

Health claims have always been spurious, but I can see other valid reasons to choose organic food over agri-chemical food.

Principally - avoiding 'innocent bystander' insects from being killed with pesticides (the value of biodiversity is hard to argue against), avoiding sudden/high volume leeching of nitrates and ilk into the water supply, reliance on agri-chemical companies.

Some people try to push the boundaries of 'organic' by creating naturally-derived analogues of synthetic treatments - but they're more about the cash-in than the ethos behind organic farming.

Ultimately it comes down either feeding the plants, or feeding the soil which in turn feeds the plants (and other wildlife). I'm for feeding the soil.

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Re: Luxury item

a better grown product which I occasionally buy because of the better taste.

I would argue that the improved taste likely has more to do with "organic" foods being grown from tastier varieties than it does with the farming methods used.

Fruit and vegetable varieties grown on "commercial" farms are usually chosen based on their durability during shipping and how good it looks "on the shelf." Flavor generally does not really enter into the equation other than perhaps as an afterthought.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Luxury item

"On the contrary, I would expect..."

And thats where you go wrong - letting pre-concieved notions in.

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Re: Luxury item

"The organic movement contains an awful lot of people who think organic=natural=Good whereas using modern pesticides in agriculture=unnatural=Poison, irrespective of the effects/evidence."

Indeed. And rather a lot of those folks don't know that organic food is often grown with pesticides, or if they do, assume for some bizarre reason that "natural" pesticides must be less poisonous than "synthetic" pesticides.

There's a wide range of pesticides used by "organic" growers, ranging from pyrethrins to copper sulfate. You really, really don't want to eat any of those pesticides--in many cases, they're more toxic than synthetics.

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Re: Luxury item

"I suspect, although noone has absolute proof, that it all rather depends on the individual application of organic or non-organic farming."

It's also important to learn which "natural" chemicals such as copper sulphate are allowed to be used on "organic" crops by the Soil Assoc.

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Re: Luxury item

"On the contrary, I would expect people who care enough to buy organic would smoke less than average, excercise more than average etc and that this meta-difference would show up in the results... but even this seems not to be the case."

I've seen morbidly obese people order a double bacon cheeseburger, a large bag of chips and a DIET Coke. Given that, I won't believe any blanket statements about the people that eat more "organic" veg smoke less and exercise more.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: red herring..

in that regard this article is a red herring.

As red herrings could be organic I am now recursively confused..

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@Psyx -- Re: Luxury item

"...less pesticides and nitrates being pumped into our water table and environment. I view my own health as somewhat less of a motivator than my countryside's."

In a long-winded post further on I argue the case for using a pesticide based on currently available scientific evidence that shows it to be reasonably safe. I did this to show not only how emotive the public discourse on this issue has become but also how woolly some of the thinking behind the arguments actually is. We've now a situation where it's nigh on impossible to have a sensible conversation with an organic farmer (or organic devotee) about pesticides, and on the other side, we've pesticide advocates and manufacturers etc. who think the organic mob is simply wacky. This doesn't solve anything.

The issues surrounding organics and the use of pesticides etc. is substantially more complicated than two opponent sides just facing off and shouting at one another (all that achieves is that the opposing mantras being broadcast from both sides only further confuse the naive public). Moreover, what is of considerable concern is how this Mexican standoff developed in the first place (but that's too big a subject to tackle here). Still, it potentially holds the key for a solution, but the sides are so entrenched and the history so long and involved, that I cannot see a resolution occurring anytime soon.

I've more than just a theoretical interest in the subject, I first used pesticides long enough ago to have seen and used arsenate of lead [PbHAsO4] when it was still an approved insecticide (and in recent years I've used its cousin, arsenic trioxide [As2O3], to kill termites). I used lead arsenate mainly to combat codling moth in apple trees, which I first started to do at about 12 years of age. And I know from the spraying practices adopted back then, I would have been exposed to and absorbed some of the chemical. (Absorbing arsenic into one's system is highly undesirable at any time, but to do so as a child is even worse.)

Before organic advocates and Greenies feint in horror, let me acquaint you with a few facts. Both codling moth and fruit fly can totally destroy crops. Left untreated, an orchard in an area of bad infestation can have essentially every piece of fruit destroyed—nothing is left, I know, I've seen it happen. In such a situation, just one single application of lead arsenate knocks codling moth for six—afterwards the exact opposite is true, one would find difficulty in finding any infestation at all. There's no doubt about it, lead arsenate is devastatingly effective against codling moth, same with Malathion for fruit fly.

Today, no one is advocating putting the double-whammy of both lead and arsenic into the environment no matter how effective an insecticide lead arsenate is. That said, one should put things into perspective. In many places, one cubic metre of backyard garden soil contains enough naturally-occurring arsenic to kill a person! Not that anyone will be harmed by it, but it should be remembered that arsenic is pretty common in the environment.

I am not arguing for one second that there are not dangerous manmade chemicals in the environment and that much of this pollution is not manmade--it certainly is. Also, I'm not arguing for any relaxation of regulations with respect to pesticides etc., in fact I'd argue just the opposite.

As I point out in the latter post, the single biggest problem in this debate is the morbid fear of chemicals and chemical pollution that has griped the population over the past few decades, it's so all-embracing that the matter cannot effectively be part of the public discourse.

My primary concern is about the ignorance and fear that surrounds this debate. Fear of chemicals is so irrational, entrenched and all pervasive within the community that it now seems impossible to move this debate on. As I've said elsewhere "clearly, school chemistry has monumentally failed to educate the public about chemicals". This wasn't once the case, the fundamental questions are why we've developed such fears in recent years and what we can do to allay them.

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unnatural=Poison

This sort of "information" is often twisted in some sort of morality framework by linking modern pesticides and fertilizers to war. An easy thing to do since many fertilisers and agricultural chemicals are made from similar ingrediants to explosives,

What they fail to mention is that many of the worst poisons out there are perfectly natural: botulism, the arsenic in wells, etc.

This is how we end up with a million people dying every year of malaria for want of a bit of cheap, safe, DDT.

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Re: Luxury item

If you really want to reduce pesticides and nitrates, then polytunnels work best.

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Mushroom

Re: Luxury item

"I've seen morbidly obese people order a double bacon cheeseburger, a large bag of chips and a DIET Coke. "

Screw you. Just because we're fat doesn't mean we should give up completely.

And stop by the health food store sometime to see the supplements to PUT ON WEIGHT. If those folks' metabolism let them keep their calories, they wouldn't need the help, now would they?

...Cirdan...

192 cm

150 kg

P.S. Look up "leptin" and postulated receptor issues & variances resulting in atypical homeostasis ("obesity"). Or just decide that all those native Hawaiians are just lazy self-indulgent pigs...not noticing the only ancient Polynesians surviving long sea voyages would be those who held on to their calories...and passed on the genes. Whichever.

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Re: Luxury item

I'm not 'morbidly obese' but on those occasions I buy fazt food I'll have acouple of sausages, a medium chips and a DIET coke, simply because I like the flavour and can't abide the taste of full fat coke or the abysmal Coke Zero. Should I be buying sugar drinks so I don't upset your preconceptions?

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Re: @Psyx -- Luxury item

"As I point out in the latter post, the single biggest problem in this debate is the morbid fear of chemicals and chemical pollution that has griped the population over the past few decades, it's so all-embracing that the matter cannot effectively be part of the public discourse."

Broadly agree with all other points, and mostly this one.

Personally, I don't have a morbid fear of chemicals. However, we don't have a great track record for pollution, with every generation spewing a selection of things into our water table and air that causes the next generation to exclaim "What the F&$K were you THINKING?". Those are the cock-ups that I'd like us to avoid, rather than a "pump it out and it'll probably be fine" attitude. That might be fine 99% of the time and ok if its your back garden, but when those are bad odds when the sample area is the place where we all live.

tl;dr: I believe a little more caution and forethought should be used when we're screwing with entire habitats, based on our track record of fucking things up epically in the past and the fact that the people making these calls are motivated by short term profit.

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@Psyx -- Re: @Psyx -- Luxury item

Despite me raising questions about the levels of pollution elsewhere, there is NO doubt that large chemical companies polluted willy-nilly decades ago (before sensitive detectors such a mass spectrometers etc. could detect them). With modern detectors, we can now look back in retrospect and analyse the pollution with some accuracy.

Despite the accuracy of current detection methods, these companies continually lie and or doge the issue, blame someone else, or say the pollution isn't as bad as people make out. After years of this crap, the population doesn't know what to believe--it's FUD (fear, Uncertainty & Doubt), unfortunately it partially works, especially with a population who is not sufficiently literate in chemistry.

Whilst what much of what these chemical companies utter is lies and propaganda, some does have a modicum of truth about it. When companies say the pollution isn't as bad as people make out, they're sometimes correct. This occurs when reagents have just caustic or acidic burning effects on people (as opposed to systemic poisoning). In these cases, simple (but efficient) remedial measures can make the site safe as any remaining residue will be essentially harmless through dilution.

Unfortunately, anti-chemical groups and the Greenies often won't concede this, thus they too generate FUD in the community. What's more, these days they're armed with both new-age, do-gooder chemists equipped with mass spectrometers to prove the point (and with the population not being clear about the differences chemical concentrations having just caustic and burning effects and those that are known carcinogens/systemic poisons etc., then FUD goes feral). This does not help!

Distinguishing between harmful waste and the more insidious waste whose exact effects on humans is known to be dangerous (or unknown or potentially dangerous) is actually is a simple notion; it's the processing of the subsequent data which is often corrupted and leads to problems. Unfortunately, both the combating protagonists and government agencies refuse to classify pollutants this simple way which leaves communities in confusion.

It seems the assumption is that FUD is useful to all sides (for whatever each is trying to prove). Moreover, instead of governments being frank and open with citizens and adjudicating properly, they offer the same advice to the total population, which invariably is advice aimed at the LCD--the person who has not one iota of chemical knowledge, thus even partially knowledgeable citizens are left in the dark.

Again, this does not help alleviate community fears either.

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Re: Luxury item

"I've seen morbidly obese people order a double bacon cheeseburger, a large bag of chips and a DIET Coke".

What a strange thing to say. Do you really think they would be better off adding an extra 330 calories (all from sugar) to their intake, when they can get an equivalent drink with no calories? Those 330 calories are of absolutely no nutritional value, in contrast to the rest of the meal.

Actually the main problems with the meal you describe are the burger bun and the potatoes. Subtract those and you have some beef, cheese, and garnish - nourishing and not too calorific (apart from the inevitable sugar which will have found its way into any sauce or relish). Unfortunately, for that very reason, they are also by far the most expensive components of the meal, which is why burger chains minimize them and maximize the bread and potatoes.

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so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

What load of old cock as a certain presenter on Top Gear is fond of saying.

My homegrown organic veggies and fruit taste a lot better than what you can buy in the supermarkets. It is also fresher (in season). It can be picked and eaten in minutes not days. Sure sometimes there are a few insects picked along with the veggie but that really does not matter in the long run.

To me, what matters is not eating food laced with god knows what man made chemicals (often derived from oil) into my body. The fallout from using DDT in the 1950's/60's is still a problem in many parts of the world. Have we learned nothing from our past mistakes?

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

Agree they may taste better and be fresher. But not all chemicals are bad for you.

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

@Steve Davies 3 My homegrown organic veggies and fruit taste a lot better than what you can buy in the supermarkets.

I'm sure that's true, but it's probably not because they're organic.

Gardeners tend to select varieties for flavour, while farmers go for high yield. Also home grown produce is liable to suffer occasional stress from lack of water, which apparently enhances flavour. Farmers make sure their produce is pumped full of as much water as possible.

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

Everything is a chemical. Chlorophyll, iron and vitamins, proteins, everything. And there are plenty of "natural" products that are seriously harmful; e.g. green light exposed potatoes and Deadly NIghtshade ( Belladonna, same family as potatoes and tomatoes if my memory serves me).

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Presumably though

It helps put a little less money in the pockets of organisations like Monsanto ?

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

My homegrown organic veggies and fruit taste a lot better than what you can buy in the supermarkets. It is also fresher (in season). It can be picked and eaten in minutes not days. Sure sometimes there are a few insects picked along with the veggie but that really does not matter in the long run.

The same is true of my homegrown veggies, just remove the word "organic" from that paragraph.

Organic real ale tastes better than crap supermarket lager, but that's because it's real ale, not because it's organic.

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

"The fallout from using DDT in the 1950's/60's is still a problem in many parts of the world"

Yes it is, but not the way you propose. It continues to be an effective way of controlling malaria laden mosquitoes "in many parts of the world". Its discontinuance is directly related to the rise of malaria in these regions.

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Joke

Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

"Everything is a chemical"

Indeed so.

Even so-called 'organic' produce contains significant amounts of dihydrogen monoxide.

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

Even so-called 'organic' produce contains significant amounts of dihydrogen monoxide.

My favourite for mixing with whisky.

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

"not all chemicals are bad for you."

I must admit to being partial to veg boiled in a mix of sodium chloride and dihydrogen monoxide. Or chips smothered in diluted acetic acid and sodium chloride. A bit of mono-sodium glutamate cooked into some foods seems ok too. My wife claims that C6H8O7 with some flavouring makes a refreshing drink as well as a decent all purpose household cleaning fluid.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

I must admit to being partial to veg boiled in a mix of sodium chloride and dihydrogen monoxide. Or chips smothered in diluted acetic acid and sodium chloride. A bit of mono-sodium glutamate cooked into some foods seems ok too.

Almost OK - except for MSG. That stuff is not really benign. On the plus side, I seem to have become sensitive to it - as I now taste it the moment I eat it, I can now prevent the problems I have with it "afterwards". That sensitivity is unhelpful as I like Asian food, but it's not hard to find a cook/restaurant that is willing to go easy on its use - a good cook can create taste without resorting to "help"..

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Facepalm

Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

More nonsense. Research into DDT's safety and effectiveness has a long, extensive history. It is so safe, people can eat it; in fact people did that for a two year study [ Hayes, W. J. (1969), PESTICIDES AND HUMAN TOXICITY. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 160: 40–54. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1969.tb15822.x ].

It is truly unfortunate that the populace at large has been misinformed about the effects of the various chemicals, both good & bad, that surround us in modern society. I for one don't harken to the bad old days of inexact food science or to eliminate vaccines that dealt with mass killer diseases (polio, rubella, etc.) which plagued us.

As for edible foods, there has been found to be a larger taste variance between home grown food of a given crop than of any particular method of agronomy & cultivation.

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@Kubla Cant -- Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

Gardeners tend to select varieties for flavour

Very true, there are literally dozens of varieties of many types of produce that are not available in the shops. One of my pet peeves is the lack bean varieties available. To solve the problem, I ended up growing all sorts of beans including some wonderful climbing varieties.

Even so, I've had to sprinkle derris dust (rotenone) on the baby bean shoots or I'd have had nothing!

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Re: so NOT putting lots of chemicals in your body is NOT ok then?

"Everything is a chemical".

Don't be deliberately obtuse. In common usage, when people talk about chemicals they mean artificial substances - and, in the context of food, they specifically mean substances that are not part of natural foods.

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1 in 10 reasons probably invalid, so all invalid?

The health aspect is just one of many reasons why one might buy organics, so suggesting that they're a waste of time because there's doubt over one of those aspects is presenting a logical fallacy.

And saying that it "won't save you from cancer" is a straw man. No-one has ever claimed that.

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Re: 1 in 10 reasons probably invalid, so all invalid?

Are you suggesting the Daily Mail is not the fount of all wisdom?

I'm shocked, shocked.

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Re: 1 in 10 reasons probably invalid, so all invalid?

"And saying that it "won't save you from cancer" is a straw man. No-one has ever claimed that."

Actually, lots and lots (and lots and LOTS and lots) of organic food proponents do indeed say that organic food will protect you from cancer. Do a Google search for organic food cancer and see for yourself. Pay attention to the claims you'll find on undergroundhealth.com, diseaseproof.com (which gets extremely specific--not only does it say that organic foods will protect you from cancer, it even specifies what varieties of cancer it claims are "caused" by "non-organic" foods), or any site at all that mentions "Max Gerson," the poster child of the organic food "non-organic=cancer" crowd. Hell, you'll even find personal stories on huffingtonpost.com of people claiming organic food smoothies "cured" their cancer.

So don't call it a straw-man argument. It's not. Rather a lot of folks make exactly that claim.

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Holmes

Re: 1 in 10 reasons probably invalid, so all invalid?

"""The health aspect is just one of many reasons why one might buy organics"""

I dare you to buy and consume inorganic food.

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Re: 1 in 10 reasons probably invalid, so all invalid?

"So don't call it a straw-man argument. It's not. Rather a lot of folks make exactly that claim."

A lot of people thing the planet is flat and that invisible fairies live in the garden, though. Even most of the proponents of organic produce generally think that's horseshit.

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Lord Melchett or the 4th Baron Melchett

I liked him in Blackadder, but he seems to have got less amusing lately.

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risk of cancer

"agricultural workers were healthier than the general population"

Absolutly no relation to the fact that they do exercise everyday, right?

Instead of sitting all day at the computer and watch tv all night, as the general population do...

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Re: risk of cancer

Still bizarre. These guys often handle rather dangerous chemicals in a very nonchalant matter.

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Re: risk of cancer

Here in Holland I read quite a bit about workers being well protected when handling the pesticides, while the people living in close proximity to the crops have lots of health problems caused by the chemicals blowing over...

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Re: risk of cancer

Well, if you live such a healthy lifestyle that you fail to die of anything else (like, heart disease) then you will eventually die of cancer. This is organic veg we're talking about, not the freakin' Elixir of Life.

A more meaningful metric would be the risk of dying *early* of cancer. In fact, this would appear to be a general weakness of all "X gives you Y" type studies that end up in the popular press, but it is entirely possible that grown-up medical researchers routinely allow for this in some clever and standardised way that goes straight over the newspapers' heads and so never gets reported. Does anyone here know?

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Boffin

Re: risk of cancer

Quite! Google the "amish study npr". Pedometers showed some of them walked 25 miles day. The daily diet was up to 10,000 kCals/day, and the community had no obesity.

In terms of human extremes, Michael Phelps and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two athletes that have both published diets of 12,000 kCals/day.

P.

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Crumbs

Strawman arguments - who funded the 'study;?

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Re: Crumbs

"Strawman arguments - who funded the 'study;?"

It's a complete straw man in the *interpretation* of the study [ie this article], but that does not render the study itself suspect or in any way worthless. remember that studies are funded BEFORE the results are in. For all you know the study may have been carried out by Mr. OrganicMcOrganicfarmsareace in the expectation of different results.

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Re: Crumbs

"remember that studies are funded BEFORE the results are in. For all you know the study may have been carried out by Mr. OrganicMcOrganicfarmsareace in the expectation of different results."

>Ahem<

"The headline result showed that eating organic food was not associated with overall cancer incidence one way or another (in fact there was a tiny increased overall risk of about 3 per cent, but it’s the sort of noisy result one can ignore)."

What do you want to bet that if the increase in cancer wasn't on the organic side that it would have been announced from the rooftops instead of ignored?

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