Food Labels Decoded: Does "Organic" Mean What You Think It Means?

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Reading the labels on food has become increasingly more important as society adjusts its focus away from processed, prepackaged foods to healthy, locally grown organic foods. Maybe you see the label telling you, "This food is organic!" and you drop it into your cart. But "organic" isn't referring to the nutritional value necessarily. Rather, it's a label telling you how that particular food was grown or how the ingredients were made. Take a bag of baby carrots, for example. One bag boasts "organic" while the other carrots are conventionally grown. They both contain little orange root vegetables that are packed with vitamins A, K and C, so what is the difference? (via Live Strong) According to the regulations the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set, here are the key differences organic foods offer.

>> Read more: Simple, Healthy Organic Swaps for the Modern Family

Soil and Water Quality: If the label says "organic," you can be assured that the soil in which that product is grown hasn't had any of the prohibited substances, as mandated by the USDA, applied to it for at least three years prior to that harvest. These prohibited substances include most pesticides or synthetic fertilizers other growers may use on their crop. If for any reason a grower feels the need to use a substance, it must be approved based on its effects on the environment and human health. (via USDA)

Animal Raising Practices: Similar to the regulations placed on soil and water quality for crops, the same practices are applicable to livestock. For meat to be considered organic, the animals are raised in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible that will not restrict their natural behaviors. Organic livestock are not given any hormones or antibiotics and they consumer 100% organic feed. Like a crop farmer, a bison farmer who wants to produce organic meat must follow these standards for at least three years before being considered an organic producer. (via USDA)

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>> Read more: Organic vs. Conventional Milk: Which Is Better For You?

Pest and Weed Control: Most pesticides are considered prohibited. Organic foods are raised without synthetic pest or weed control. Again, if a producer finds a specific need for a certain substance for their crop, they must have it approved according to standards that monitor the environmental and health effects. You can find a list of allowed and prohibited substances on the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service website.

Additive Use: Organic foods do not contain artificial coloring, preservatives or flavors. The Organics Institute states that additives are used to add flavor lost in processing, increase nutritional value, enhance appearance and prolong shelf life. Additives are only permitted when the food is not safe to consume without them and even then they cannot make up more than five percent of the product's final mass.

>> Click here to read about additives that could be making your kids sick.

Ingredient Standards: Packaged products that carry the organic label contain at least 70 percent organically produced products. The remaining ingredients cannot be produced using prohibited products as outlined by the USDA but don't have to be 100% organic; however, if a product bears the 100% organic label, you can be sure it's just that - 100% organic.

Knowing what the labels mean helps you make informed decisions about the food your family consumes from "fat-free" to "reduced fat" to "organic." Do your research so that you can trust the label. If you don't know what it means, you might not get what you are looking for. "Organic" and "natural" are not interchangeable and "100% organic" is not the same as plain ol' "organic." You might choose which labels you follow based on ethical beliefs or in accordance with diet restrictions. Either way, it is important that you know what you're getting so you can be confident you are sticking to the plan.

>> Read more: How to Teach Your Kids How to Decode Nutrition Labels