What's 'all natural'? How to decode common food labels

If you look for items with a big “Natural!” label at the grocery store thinking they’re healthier, you’re probably wrong. They might not be natural at all.

About 60 percent of consumers look for a “natural” label when they shop, according to a 2014 survey by Consumer Reports. But on a food label, that term doesn’t mean what most people think it does as they seek unprocessed, simpler foods. In 2014 alone, major packaged food producers lost $4 billion in market share, as shoppers demanded more organic and natural foods, according to a report by Fortune.

But finding those simpler foods can be a challenge because the word on the front of the package doesn’t always match its usual definition, especially when it comes to the word “natural.”

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You may run into the same problem with labels if you’re concerned about fiber, trans fats, antibiotics or preservatives, or even if you just want to know the difference between plain “organic” and “100% organic.”

Here’s a rundown of what common food labels really mean:

“Natural” labels

A “natural” label means something different depending on the kind of food to which it’s attached.

When it comes to meat, eggs and poultry, “natural” means “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and [that] is only minimally processed,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees meat, poultry and egg labeling. Even though the meat may have no additives, the animal it came from could have been given antibiotics and growth hormones.

The term “natural” means little on labels for items such as produce and processed food because  the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the term. The FDA objects to use of the word when products contain added color or synthetic ingredients but doesn’t explicitly restrict it. As a result, manufacturers may describe anything from cheese puffs to soda as “natural,” “100% natural” or “all natural.”

READ MORE: A Guide to Artificial Sweeteners

“Organic” labels

Organic labels are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and each organic label has a specific meaning. Organic methods of growing food[8]  approved by the USDA prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones. When it comes to livestock, animals must be able to graze freely and may be confined to pens only in certain circumstances to be certified as organic.

Organic produce costs more, but proponents like knowing that their fruits and vegetables have no chemicals or additives. While there’s no evidence that organic food is more nutritious, some people claim to taste a difference, according to the USDA. Organic food is usually grown in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, so if you’re green at heart, such products may be worth the extra money.

Here’s what the 3 USDA-approved labels mean:

  • 100% Organic: All ingredients have been certified as completely organic and free of GMOs and antibiotics.
  • Organic: Products must be at least 95% organic to have this USDA seal.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: Ingredients must be at least 70% organic and may not contain the USDA’s organic seal.

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Nutrient content claims

Many foods claim to be “high in” a particular mineral, or “an excellent source of” a specific vitamin, but those terms are vague at best. Still, they are regulated by the FDA, and to make such claims, products must have specific amounts of the advertised nutrient.

If you’re looking to increase your intake of a particular vitamin or mineral, here’s how you can know whether you’ll meet your goal.

  • High, Rich In, or Excellent Source Of: The food must contain at least 20% of the recommended daily amount of any nutrient, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
  • Good Source Of, or Contains: The product has 10% to 19% of the recommended amount of the nutrient advertised.
  • More, Fortified, Enriched, Added, Extra, or Plus: These labels may only be used for vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber, and when the product contains at least 10% of the advertised ingredient.

“No Trans Fats” Labels

Like similar nutrient claims, “no trans fats” means that the product must contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. But the recommended maximum intake of trans fats is only 2 grams, potentially allowing for 25 percent of the maximum in each serving.

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Although the trans-fats limit is 2 grams, none is best. There is strong evidence that the consumption of trans fats raises levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers “good” HDL cholesterol levels, according to the American Heart Association. Consuming too much also raises the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

If you want to know for sure that your food is free of trans fats, check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated oils.” If the term is there, the food has trans fats.

Whether you want only 100 percent organic foods or just a little more fiber in your diet, knowing the meanings behind food labels can help you get what you want. For those looking to eat simpler foods, fewer ingredients are always best. Or consider shopping at nearby farmers markets instead— when the food is fresh and local, you know it’s good.