Consumer Reports: Understanding confusing food labels

Just because the food label says it's healthy doesn't necessarily mean it is.

Buzz words like organic, natural and cage-free can be confusing.

Consumer Reports cuts through the confusion to help you focus on the most meaningful labels.

Donna Simons runs her own food co-op and teaching kitchen, but it's her farm that stands out, for its eggs.

"My chickens have a pretty good life, they can forage naturally. They are outdoors all day," says Simons, of Pound Ridge Farm.

Donna's farm is not typical.

Once a year, it's thoroughly inspected by A Greener World, a group that Consumer Reports says is free of conflicts of interest and performs unannounced farm visits, to earn the seal "Animal Welfare Approved."

"I feel that raising animals according to the highest standards is the most important thing I can do as a farmer, as a supplier of food and as an educator," said Simons.

Consumer Reports says "Animal Welfare Approved" is a seal worth searching out.

A recent guide by CR analyzed and rated many of the food-labeling seals and claims consumers encounter from the farmer's market to the supermarket.

"It's very hard for consumers to know which of these claims have a good definition behind them and good standards that meet their expectations," says Charlotte Vallaeys, a policy analyst with Consumer Reports.

Take, for example, "All Natural," "Pesticide Free," or "No Antibiotics."

In some cases, those labels may be accurate, though shoppers can't always be sure because the claims are not well-defined or required to be properly verified.

Consumer Reports says a better label to look for is: "The USDA Organic seal is a very good one. It's backed by federal law and federal regulations that are really quite comprehensive," said Vallaeys.

Consumer Reports also highly rates seals like "Non-GMO Project Verified," "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" and "American Grassfed."

Bottom line: You might have to do a little homework, but at least you'll understand what the labels really mean.
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