R eading the information on food packaging—especially the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list—can help you make wiser choices. But some of the wording you see on the front of packages entices you to pick—and pay more for—products that aren’t exactly what they seem. Here, food label experts answer some of the most perplexing questions about the meaning behind various food label terms to help you separate the ones that deliver from those that don’t.

Should I Buy Natural or Organic?

“Many consumers think that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ foods share many of the same attributes,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst and food labeling expert at Consumer Reports. But the terms are not synonymous. “Organic has strong, comprehensive federal standards that address how foods are farmed and processed, with a lot of requirements and prohibitions for farmers and processors,” Vallaeys says. For example, organic foods may not be produced with most synthetic pesticides or with all artificial flavors or colors, anti­biotics, or growth hormones. Natural has only one regulated definition—on meat and poultry, it means the product was minimally processed, according to the Department of Agriculture. On other foods, the term is essentially meaningless.

More On Food Labels

Shop smart: Until government agencies provide a meaningful regulatory definition for the term “natural,” which Consumer Reports has called on them to do, look for the USDA Organic seal if you want foods produced without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, or all genetically engineered crops, chemical processing aids, or artificial ingredients. It may keep you healthier: In one new JAMA Internal Medicine study that followed nearly 70,000 adults for an average of five years, researchers found an association between frequent consumption of organic food and a reduced risk of cancer. Though the study does not prove cause and effect, those who ate organic food most often had a 25 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with cancer than those who seldom ate organic food.

Is Multigrain Healthier Than Whole Wheat?

“Multigrain just means there’s a mixture of grains, most of which may be refined,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. In contrast to whole wheat or other whole grains (such as oats), refined grains are processed to have the outer bran and inner germ stripped away. That leaves just the endosperm, which is primarily composed of starchy carbohydrates and is low in nutrients. Though some—but not all—vitamins are added back to refined grains and flours (hence the term “enriched”), a key missing component, especially for older adults, is fiber. A high-fiber diet helps protect against age-related diseases, such as diabetes, some types of cancer, and heart disease.

Shop smart: If a whole grain (whole wheat, oats, or brown rice, for example) is first in a product’s ingredients list, it is likely to contain a decent amount of whole grains. But your best option is to look for products in which every grain listed is a whole one or for products that carry a claim such as “100 percent whole wheat” or “100 percent whole grain.” Watch for terms such as “made with whole grains,” though. The product may contain just a sprinkling of whole grains. 

Is Free-Range Better Than Cage-Free?

Neither claim means that the chickens roam freely. Cage-free chickens aren’t raised in a cage, Vallaeys says, but they may still be packed into a building with tens of thousands of other birds with little ability to roam and peck. Free-range birds have access to an outdoor space, but there is no government standard for the amount of space, and there may be just one door to the outside that’s unreachable for most birds. “It’s quite possible that free-range chickens never set foot outside,” Vallaeys says. As for “organic,” the chickens are cage-free and raised on organic feed, and organic standards require outdoor access. But some certifying agencies interpret a small concrete porch to meet this requirement. So if you’re looking for meat or eggs from chickens that were able to go outdoors, don’t rely on the organic seal alone.

Shop smart: To be sure chickens were actually able to access a spacious outdoor run (specifically, providing 108 square feet of vegetated outdoor space per bird), look for the “pasture-raised” claim in combination with the American Humane Certified or Certified Humane seal. If you see pasture-raised on a package without one of these accompanying seals, though, all bets are off, Vallaeys says. 

Is Organic Beef Always Grass-Fed?

Per federal standards, cattle raised for organic meat must get at least 30 percent of their daily food from the pasture during grazing season. However, just like conventionally raised cattle, organic cattle can be fattened up on grain in a feedlot before slaughter.

Shop smart: If you want grass-fed beef, look for a specific 100 percent grass-fed claim. Some that have strong standards: “American Grassfed,” “NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed,” and “PCO Certified 100% Grass Fed,” Vallaeys says. When possible, grass-fed beef and dairy products are a wise buy because their total fat content is lower than such products from grain-fed cattle. In addition, the mix of fats they contain may be heart healthier. Specifically, grass-fed meat and dairy has a more healthful ratio of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids to omega-3s. Too much omega-6 fat in your diet can cause inflammation, which may be a factor in heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. But omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. And more of the saturated fat in grass-fed is stearic acid, a type of fatty acid that doesn’t raise blood cholesterol. 

Is ‘No Artificial Colors’ Less Processed?

With more consumers interested in foods with “clean” labels and short ingredients lists, many food manufacturers are eliminating these additives. And that’s a good thing because some artificial colors and flavors are associated with potential health risks. Still, just because a food doesn’t contain them doesn’t mean it’s good for you or it’s not highly processed.

Shop smart: Colors and flavors are just a small part of the story when it comes to the nutritional profile of foods. “It’s impor­tant to evaluate the whole food and not just one or two components of it,” Lichtenstein says. To illustrate this point, consider Jell-O Simply Good Strawberry Gelatin Mix. Though it’s promoted as containing no artificial flavors, dyes, or preservatives, a half-cup serving contains 19 grams of sugars—the equivalent of 76 calories and almost 5 teaspoons. That’s about half the added sugars a man should have daily (9 teaspoons) and nearly all a woman should have (6 teaspoons) each day. 

What Does ‘Humanely Raised’ Mean?

In a recent Consumer Reports survey of 1,000 people, 38 percent said they look for a humanely raised label when they shop and 45 percent said they would be willing to pay more for products that ensure animals were humanely treated. But, according to Vallaeys, you can’t trust a generic “humanely raised” claim on a label, because there’s no common standard for its meaning and there are no required on-the-farm inspections to verify the claim.

Shop smart: These seals indicate programs with strong standards for animal welfare and inspections: “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Global Animal Partnership Step 1 to 5+” (with every step, standards increase), “American Grassfed,” and “Certified Humane Raised and Handled.” 

Is It Safe to Eat Food Past Its Sell-By Date?

It's usually safe to eat foods after their use-by or sell-by dates. Manufacturers provide such dates to help consumers decide when food is of best quality. In both cases, a product should be safe if handled properly until spoilage is evident. Spoiled foods often have an off-odor and off-taste. But look for other signs, such as changes in texture or color, because as you get older, your sense of smell may become less keen. These changes will typically occur before a food becomes unsafe.

Shop smart: Sell-by is the date set by manufacturers to tell retailers when to remove the product from shelves. Use-by is the date when the manufacturer guarantees the product is at its best quality. However, use-by is a safety date when used on infant formula. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.