Lots of moms and dads are trying to go “organic” with their diets. But what does that even mean? With all the stickers on our food, things can get a little confusing at the market. Labels are on everything and it’s practically a science to know how to read what’s printed on each one. There are rumors and “urban legends” about what bar codes, number sequences and ingredient lists actually mean, and if you’re looking to incorporate more organic food into your diet…you  may be experiencing label overload. Let’s see if we can simplify the process.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) the word “organic” is a labeling term indicating “that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods…that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” I don’t know about you, but that whole “sewage sludge” part makes organic seem worth the price! If you see the USDA organic sticker on your food, it has been “certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content.” For products with more than one ingredient, like bread, cereal or soup, “if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic.”

Labels such as free-range, cage-free, natural, grass-fed, humane or pasture-raised should not be confused with meaning organic. And as a note, any meat which touts itself as being raised without added hormones is simply stating a historical fact. Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork or goat.

Farmers of produce may not be considered “organic” until their land has been free of all prohibited substances for a minimum of 36 consecutive months. In addition, any farmer wishing to be certified organic must submit a detailed description of the farming operation they run, all substances used on the land in the last three years, all products that are being grown or raised, and a written plan describing all practices and substances that will be used. There is also a fee assessed to apply and rectify each year.

Organic foods cost more, no doubt, but knowing what limitations are placed on the farmers who grow and raise “organic” foods may help you to understand why. Hopefully your next visit to the market will be less confusing as you look through the myriad labels.