There is an increasing focus on incorporating healthier ingredients into the foods we eat. Several different branches of this movement exist, with free range, cage free and non-genetically modified foods gaining shelf space in modern supermarkets. Unfortunately for consumers, such labels are not regulated by any governing body, so they are essentially meaningless.

What is not meaningless is the growing popularity of organic food. Organic is the only one of these labels that has clearly set legal codes it must follow. However, as en vogue as it is to purchase and support organic foods, relatively few people know what it is they are buying into.

In order to be certified organic, a farm must comply with a number of standards set by the NOP, or National Organic Program. Generally speaking, the farm must eliminate any artificial fertilizers and pesticides for three years before it can grow organic crops. The use of “sludge,” or fertilizer made from human waste, is also prohibited.

If a farm is producing livestock, the animals must be allowed access to the outdoors. Animals must also be kept free of growth hormones, reproductive aids, antibiotics and synthesized foodstuffs.

Finally, a farm is required to undergo an extensive validation process. Farms must pay thousands of dollars for government inspection and run the risk of having a violation that removes their labeling rights.

All of this is expensive. A primary criticism of the organic food movement is the high price associated with it. Supermarkets operate on relatively small profit margins with conventional products. Products that sell in lower quantity, such as organic produce, must be sold at a higher price in order to be profitable. Add this to the already increased cost of production, and a consumer’s wallet can be left reeling.

Another issue here is the proposed health benefits. Scientists simply don’t know if it is actually healthier in the long run to buy organic food. Any evidence is purely anecdotal at this point, and arguments are weakened when we consider that people who buy organic are more likely to have overall healthier diets.

Let’s assume that, having read all of this and having done independent research, you still want to pay a visit to Whole Foods and go on a shopping spree. What level of organic are you going to buy?

With regard to food products such as cereal, soup, juice or anything else that is purchased pre-prepared, the USDA recognizes three types of organic products at this time: 100 percent Organic, Certified Organic and Made With Organic Ingredients.

100 percent Organic products are made entirely from organic ingredients and methods. Certified Organic, on the other hand, only has to use 95 percent organic ingredients.

It gets a little muddy with the “Made with Organic Ingredients” label, unfortunately. These products require 70% of their ingredients to be organic.

A tip for shoppers is to look for the USDA Organic Seal: if it’s not there, the product probably isn’t worth the premium.

Is buying organic worth it? When you buy organic, you support the smaller farms that produce the ingredients. You also support production practices that are less damaging to the environment. This is enough for many people.

Are you instantly improving your health? Nobody knows, and we likely won’t for a while. If you are going to purchase organic, be sure that you trust your source, use common sense with regards to which products are worth the premium and ensure that what you are buying is actually organic.