Consumer Reports: Decoding food labels

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Consumer Reports says what you see on many food labels is not always what you get.

So how do you decode it all?

"Certainly some of these claims are put on the labels to get consumers to buy that product," said Charlotte Vallaeys, Senior Policy Analyst at Consumer Reports.

Starting with a big one - "natural." Consumer Reports says that's at the top of the list of misleading labels.

"And that's because for most foods there's actually no common standard that a food manufacturer has to meet to label their food's natural," said Charlotte.

She says that natural claim gets tossed around frequently with fruit-based products

"A consumer might think that because it's labeled natural the fruit was grown on farms that didn't use toxic pesticides or that in the final product, no artificial preservatives were added," said Charlotte.

But shopper beware, that's not necessarily the case. Check those labels closely.

Another example? Cage-free.

"So cage-free on a carton of eggs has meaning because most chickens that are raised for lying eggs are housed in cages but then you will also see that claim on package of chicken," said Charlotte.

But those chickens aren't even raised in cages, so Consumer Reports calls that a sort of meaningless marketing.

If you're avoiding gluten the labels can be helpful, but many companies are now using that gluten-free claim on items that don't even naturally contain gluten.

"Like rice and oats and they even allow it on, say, a bottle of water - that can be labeled as gluten-free," warns Charlotte..

How about those farm fresh products?

"Fresh in terms of a labeling claim means it hasn't been frozen. Now freezing an egg would destroy its quality,so all the eggs that are in the supermarket, they are all fresh and farm fresh," said Charlotte.

And if you're looking for certified organic, Consumer Reports says that if it has the USDA seal, you can trust it

"There's actually a federal law and federal regulations that set the rules for what can be called labeled organic, they're very comprehensive and strict rules going all the way back to the farm," said Charlotte.

That rule also applies for any products that claim to be antibiotic-free and humane to animals. If it's labeled healthy, don't use that as as shortcut. Always check the ingredient list and the nutritional facts and always look for the word whole - as in grains and wheats.

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