Organic food research

Background to the project

In the Organic Consumption Survey over 95% of organic consumers agreed with the statement 'organic food is healthier to eat than conventionally grown food because it generally contains no pesticide residues'. While Australian researchers have demonstrated that Victorian certified organic produce has fewer pesticide residues than conventional food crops, whether this results in less accumulation of pesticides in people who consume organic produce is unclear.

Recent studies of children in the United States have demonstrated that substituting conventional fruits and vegetables with organic ones for a five-day period, results in a reduction in levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites to non-detectable or close to non-detectable levels and pyrethroid insecticides reduced by approximately 50%. This confirms a previous report that consumption of organic fruits, vegetables and juice can reduce children's exposure levels from 'uncertain risk' to 'negligible risk'. Whether these results can be extended to adult populations and other agricultural contaminants has yet to be explored.

‘Organic Health & Wellness Survey’ closes Sunday 18 December

The purpose of the ‘Organic Health & Wellness Survey’ is to explore the health experiences of people who consume organic foods on a regular basis. The information collected will be used to direct future research.

This survey is intended to be completed by people who consume organic foods on most if not all days. The questions will generally refer to the period since you started eating organic food (or made a choice to increase your intake from only eating organic occasionally to eating it regularly).

Before you decide whether to participate in the survey you will be asked to confirm the following.

  • I consider myself to be a regular ‘organic consumer’.
  • I am over 18 years of age.
  • I have read and understood the ‘Project Information Statement’.

If you have not done so already you can view a copy of the Project Information Statement (PDF 56KB 4p)

It is anticipated that this survey will take approximately 15-20 minutes to complete. Once you commence the survey you will be asked a series of questions. These will include basic questions about you and your personal health experiences as a result of consuming organic foods. In relevant sections, parents of children under 18 years (who are not eligible to complete the survey themselves) may also include health effects that they have observed in their own children. You will not be asked for your name, address or any other personal identifying information. To find out more read the Privacy Statement (PDF 20KB 2p).

To complete the survey please take the Organic Health and Wellness Survey.

Bio-monitoring trial (BMT)

Please contact the study co-ordinator if you are interested in participating in this study.

The Department of Health Sciences at RMIT University is conducting a study to identify whether there is a difference in urinary pesticide residues in response to consumption of organic and conventional (non-organic) foods. It will also look at whether the tests that are commercially available in Australia are sensitive enough to pick up dietary differences in organic intake. Urine samples will be collected from participants on two occasions and analysed for pesticide residues (in particular for metabolites of organophosphate).

Eligible participants will be asked to undertake two different diets, each for a 7 day period. In phase 1 participants will be asked to complete a food intake survey for 7 days whilst following an organic diet. At the end of this period participants will be asked to provide a urine sample, to be analysed for pesticide residues, and complete an online survey known as the ‘Chemical Exposure and Food Behaviour Survey’. This process will then be repeated with the participants consuming a conventional diet for a 7-day period. The order of the diets may be reversed for some participants.

Participants will be provided with copies of all necessary documents as well as any equipment and written instructions required for the collection, storage and transportation of urine samples. The primary researcher will be available to answer questions if required. All documents and specimens will be coded to protect the participants’ identity.

Participants who complete the study will be able to obtain copies of their personal test results free of charge at the end of the study period.

If you are interested in learning more about this project please read the Project Information Statement (PDF 56KB 4p).

The project is supported in part by a research restricted donation from Bharat Mitra, co-founder of Organic India Pty Ltd. The project has been approved by the RMIT Human Research Ethics Committee.

If you have any questions or would like to express your interest in participating please contact the study co-ordinator: liza.oates@rmit.edu.au or 0412 310 390. Please provide your contact details (email and phone number) and a suitable time to contact you. These details will not be passed on to any third parties.

Previous research (key findings)

Organic Consumption Survey (OCS)

The Organic Consumption Survey (OCS) was conducted in Australia in 2010. The purpose was to identify the behaviours and beliefs of people who consume organic foods. Three hundred and eighteen usable surveys were submitted.

The majority of participants were female (80.3%), 25-55 years old (80.3%), from urban areas (61.2%), born in Australia (68.9%) and were in a healthy weight range (55.5%). As with previous reports income did not appear to have a strong impact on organic uptake. The median household income amongst organic consumers surveyed was AU$1,000–1,299 /week (AU$52,000-67,599 /year) with a marked increase up to but only a slight increase beyond AU$400-599 /week (AU$20,800-31,199 /year). Nearly two thirds of OCS participants held a tertiary degree qualification with over a third holding postgraduate degrees. In general the demographic characteristics of participants did not appear to differ with the level of organic consumption.

Based on self-reports, the percentage of people in the OCS that consumed most or all (i.e. >65%) organic food in the previous 12 months was 37.4% for certified organic food and 60.4% when ‘likely’ organic foods were also included. The majority (56.3%) of participants were able to achieve 65% organic food intake including a minimum of 35% certified organic food.

Organic fruit and vegetables had the highest uptake by organic consumers and animal flesh products the lowest. The average estimated weekly expenditure on organic food (either certified or ‘likely’) was 69.3% of the weekly food budget.

Many of the organic consumers surveyed did not eat various food groups unless they were organic. Those who did eat conventional fruit and vegetables were around three times more likely to peel them than they would organic fruit and vegetables.

The vast majority agreed with the statements: ‘organic food is healthier to eat than conventionally grown food because it generally contains no pesticide residues’(95.4%); and ‘organic foods are better for the environment than conventionally grown foods (97%). Very few agreed that ‘in Australia the regulation of agricultural chemicals used on conventional farms adequately protects the environment from damage’ (2%) or that ‘the amounts of pesticide residues remaining on conventionally farmed produce are not likely to be harmful to my health’ (5.6%).

Around a quarter (24.7%) said that health related concerns influenced their decision to consume organic foods and 76.9% said that scientific evidence had a moderate or strong influence on their beliefs about organic food.

The majority of people said they would eat more organic food if: it was ‘more available in convenient locations’(70.4%); if it was ‘less expensive (no more than 20% premium)’ (65.4%); or if there was ‘more evidence that eating organic food reduces exposure to pesticide residues compared to eating conventionally farmed food’ (57.7%). Cost and convenience appeared to become less important in those with high consumption of organic food.

Other factors that influenced purchasing decisions included: where the food was grown (90.5%), the amount of processing (89.4%), the amount of packaging (87.5%), whether the food was in season (86.2%), the nature of the seller (80.4%), whether the farmers received a fair price and conditions (79.9%) and the distance it had travelled (79.1%).

Clearer definitions of organic consumers should allow for more rigorous research evaluating the purported health benefits of organic foods in the future. The information from this survey will be used to ensure that the ongoing ‘Health and Wellness Survey’ and biomonitoring trial are relevant to and reflective of Australian organic consumers.

If you would like you can view a copy of the 'Organic Consumption Survey' questions (PDF, 211KB, 18p).

Organic Food Intake Survey (OFIS)

As it is difficult for adult consumers to maintain a 100% organic diet, participants were invited to pilot a three-day 'Organic Food Intake Survey' (OFIS). The purpose of this survey was to assess the percentage of organic food consumed. Nineteen participants returned the surveys providing a total of 58 sampling days.

Based on self-reports, the percentage of people in the OFIS that consumed more than 65% organic food in the previous 12 months was 52.6% for certified organic food and 73.6% when ‘likely’ organic foods were also included. On the whole the ‘actual’ levels of organic consumption (based on quantification of serving sizes by food group) were slightly higher than the initial self-reported estimates of the participants, although these differences were not statistically significant. The average estimated weekly expenditure on organic food (either certified or ‘likely’) was 74.3% amongst participants in the OFIS. The majority (63%) were able to achieve 65% organic food intake including a minimum of 35% certified organic food.

Overall the percentage of servings that came from organic food was lowest for animal protein (56.8%) and highest for fruit (80.1%) and vegetables (83.2%). Interestingly both animal protein (16.6%) and vegetables (19.0%) had the highest contribution from ’likely’ organic sources. Comments from participants suggested these were largely from vegetables grown in their own garden or eggs from their own chickens. Some participants also included food purchased from farmer’s markets where they had discussed the production methods with the farmers.

If you would like you can view a copy of the 'Organic Food Intake Survey' questions (DOC, 356KB, 13p).

Additional information

Register your interest in joining our mailing list

If you have any questions please email Liza Oates.

Publications and presentations

Oates L, Cohen M. Assessing Diet as a Modifiable Risk Factor for Pesticide Exposure. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2011;8(6):1792-804.

Oates L, Cohen M, Mann N. Defining organic consumers. 3rd Scientific Conference of the International Society of Organic Agriculture Research (ISOFAR). Namyangju, Republic of Korea, 29 Sept-1 Oct 2011.

Oates L, Cohen M. Evaluating pesticide exposure in organic and conventional consumers. (Poster presentation). Organic Food Quality & Health conference. Prague, Czech Republic 18-20 May 2011.

Oates L. Review: Australian Organic Market Report 2010. Journal of Organic Systems 2011;6(1):42-43.

Oates L, Cohen M. AIMA Position Statement on Organic Produce: Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, 2010.

Oates L, Cohen M. Human Consumption of Agricultural Toxicants from Organic and Conventional Food. Journal of Organic Systems 2009;4(1):48-57.

Funding sources

  • Liza Oates is supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship
  • RMIT University provides assistance with statistical, IT and marketing support
  • The organic industry provides in kind assistance with promoting the projects to prospective participants
  • The biomonitoring trial is supported in part by a research restricted donation from Bharat Mitra, co-founder of Organic India Pty Ltd

The researchers would like to thank

  • Professor Charlie Xue and the staff of the School of Health Sciences
  • Dr Anthony Bedford and Adrian Schembri (School of Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences)
  • Cathy Leahy (School of Health Sciences)
  • Professor Neil Mann (School of Applied Science)
  • Gosia Kaszubska, Milena Nicola and Nick Besley (College of SEH Marketing and Communications)