Decoding food labels

If you’re at the grocery store and one item is labeled “natural” and the other is not, which do you go for?

If you said natural because it seems healthier, you’re not alone. A Consumer Reports survey in 2016 found 73% of us seek out food with “natural” on the label. That's up from 62% in 2015.

We think these labels mean something, when many times, these terms on food labels are not regulated at all.

We’re helping you decode some of those label terms.

Natural vs. Organic

The term "organic" is strictly regulated and can only be on a label when farmers and processors adhere to strict federal standards.

Products have to have 95-percent of their ingredients grown with fewer pesticides and without synthetic fertilizers.

Farm animals have to be raised on organic feed and without the use of antibiotics. They also cannot contain artificial ingredients.

It gets a bit murky with the term “natural.” There is little to no government regulation with this term, so it can be misleading. We assume it means the same as the organic label -- but it does not.

Be wary of products with this label, as you may not be getting the whole story.

Pasture-raised vs. Free Range

Pasture-raised on an egg carton may not mean much. Consumer Reports says look for that term in combination with a certified humane seal.

Both of those mean hens have a lot of outdoor space to roam.

The term "free range" sounds like it would mean the same thing, but the label has no FDA-approved meaning.

So be sure to look for the American Humane Certified seal.

Good Source of Fiber vs. Double Fiber

You'll see these terms on loaves of bread sometimes. A good source of fiber means, by FDA standards, one serving has between 2.8 and 5 grams of fiber per serving.

"Double fiber" simply means it's double the amount compared to the original product, which can vary. It's best to check the label here to know how much you're really getting.

Made with Whole Grains vs. 100% Whole Grain

These two sound very similar, but they couldn’t be more different.

Made with whole grains is a bit unclear. Consumer Reports points out that this product may contain only a small amount of whole grains, it doesn’t really specify how much of the item is made with whole grains.

A product that claims it contains “100% whole grains” means it should contain exclusively whole grains.  Check the label in this case because whole wheat flour or another whole grain should be listed as the first ingredient.

Low Sodium vs. Reduced Sodium

Low sodium is a good term to look for if you are trying to keep your salt intake in check because it means that the product will have no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Reduced sodium means that a product has to have at least 25% less sodium than the full sodium version of the same product. This could still mean a ton of salt.

Let’s say a frozen pizza has 950 milligrams of sodium. It’s reduced sodium counterpart would still have about 240 milligrams of sodium per serving, which may be a lot if you’re watching your intake.

In this case, look for a low sodium designation.

Sugar-Free vs. Unsweetened

Sugar-free means a product contains less than half a gram of sugar per serving. However, sugar-free can also mean that it contains artificial sweeteners, so it’s best to check the label here.

Unsweetened means there is no sugar or artificial sweetener added to the product. It still may contain sugars that occur naturally, like applesauce, for example.