Consumer Reports: Decoding food labels

Grocery shopping can be overwhelming. Foods are often packaged with a dizzying array of labels, sometimes with healthy-sounding buzz words like organic, natural and cage-free. But how do you know if those labels actually mean anything?

Consumer Reports cuts through the confusion to help you focus on the most meaningful food 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," Simons said.

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," she said.

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

A recent guide by Consumer Reports 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," said Consumer Reports Policy Analyst Charlotte Vallaeys.

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," Vallaeys said. "It's backed by federal law and federal regulations that are really quite comprehensive."

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.

"Know which ones are meaningful, so that your purchasing decisions have the impact that you want them to have," Vallaeys said.

For all the steak and burger lovers, you might want to look for the "American Grassfed" seal. It means that the cattle graze on pasture and eat only grass their entire life. These animals are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and the farms are inspected every 15 months.

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