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What Do 'All Natural' And 'Organic' Really Mean? Expert Tips On Decoding Food Labels

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - While you may think you're making some healthy choices at the supermarket by picking products that say "all natural" or "lightly sweetened," experts warn that such claims can be misleading.

"When it comes to losing weight is gluten free the way to go?" one shopper asked.

"Hey should I get organic? Natural?" asked another.

"What does 'all natural' really mean anyway?" asked a third.

One thing is for sure: Consumers seem confused when it comes to food labels.

"Marketers are very, very clever," said dietitian Nicolette Pace. "What they do is catch trends... and they know what sells."

According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, 80 percent of grocery shoppers say information on packaging seems conflicting.

"It's really the front of the box versus the back of the box," Pace said.

The front of the box, says Pace, is all marketing. She says the back of the box is "where the real nutrition information is."

One of the biggest false claims today, she says, is the term "all natural."

"And then on the back you'll have BHT and all kinds of preservatives," Pace said.

BHT is a controversial food additive. Manufacturers can do this because labels are unregulated.

"Organic, now that's a big one. It's on everything," Pace said.

Unless used by a trustworthy company, Pace says the word "organic" may just be a ploy. As are the phrases "grass fed," "free range," "lightly sweetened" and "made with real fruit."

"'Made with real fruit' means, if you're lucky, maybe a tablespoon of real fruit," Pace said. "It's pretty much jam."

"Uncured" bacon, Pace says, is actually cured, but with something other than sodium nitrate.

"What they use is celery juice," Pace said.

"Gluten free" is written on just about everything now - even products that never contained wheat.

"If you do not have any need for gluten free, stay away," Pace said. "It has the same amount of carbohydrates."

So here's how to decipher labels:

  • If natural is important to you, look for a product with five or less ingredients.
  • "USDA Organic" is a term that is regulated by the government and therefore trustworthy

Pace says skip "reduced" or "low fat" items altogether.

"They will add carbohydrates. When you take out something, you have to put something back, you're not going to put back air," Pace said.

Experts also say look at the ingredients on the label. They have to be listed in descending order of weight, so you want to look for healthy choices at the top of the list.


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