Consumers rely on food labels to help them make wise and healthy nutritional choices.  But are they getting their money’s worth for products that bear labels such as “natural,” “hormone free,” “free range” and “fresh”?   In many cases they’re not, because these and other food labels can be misleading.   

What does "natural" mean?
For example, the term “natural” sounds appealing and healthy, but it has little actual meaning when it comes to the nutritional value or safety of food. Except for meat and poultry products, there is no standard definition for the term -- the manufacturer decides whether to label food as “natural.”  As a result, products such as soda and potato chips -- not generally regarded as health foods -- have been labeled as “natural.”

For meat and poultry, there is a standard definition of “natural” -- the food cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients and should be minimally processed. But again, “natural” does not mean “healthy.” The fat in a steak may be “natural,” but it can still clog your arteries.  

What does "hormone free" mean?
Some eggs are labeled as being “hormone free.” The “hormone free” label  misleads consumers to believe that the eggs are different, and better, from eggs that don’t bear the label -- and are worth a higher price. But for decades, the federal government has prohibited the use of hormones in raising all poultry (and hogs too). The manufacturer of “hormone free” eggs has not gone beyond federal regulations, and a higher price for “hormone free” eggs is unjustified.

What does "free range" mean?
“Free range” chicken conjures up the positive image of a bird that actually roamed the outdoors. However, birds can be sold as “free range” if they had some access to the outdoors each day for an unspecified period of time -- perhaps only minutes. It does not mean that the birds actually went outdoors to roam freely, and no other criteria, such as environmental quality, size of area, number of birds or space per bird, are required by the term.

What does "fresh" mean?
And “fresh” poultry sounds like it was never frozen, right? Wrong. Federal rules allow raw poultry labeled as “fresh” to be stored at temperatures as low as 24 degrees -- well below freezing. So fresh chicken may actually have been frozen chicken.   

So how can consumers know which labels are reliable, and which are not? What does “USDA certified organic” mean? What’s the difference between “fruit drink” and “fruit juice”? Should you pay extra for milk labeled as “anti-biotic free”? 

Fortunately, the answers to questions such as these are readily available -- if you know where to look. The following Web sites offer clear guidance about food labels and help separate the wheat (the labels that are meaningful) from the chaff (the labels that are not meaningful, and tend to mislead).

The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels has a label report card for nearly all commonly found food labels, including “USDA organic” (rated “highly meaningful”), “dolphin safe” (rated “somewhat meaningful”) and “hormone free” (rated “not meaningful”).

Look for answers to the following questions for each label:  How meaningful is the label? Is the label verified? Is the meaning of the label consistent? Are the label standards publicly available?  Is information about the organization publicly available? Is the organization free from conflict of interest? Was the label developed with broad public and industry input? 

Some common labels such as “USDA organic” receive an answer of “yes” to all of these questions.  Others, such as “100% vegetarian ingredients” and “free range,” receive an answer of “no” to all of these questions. 

Food and Water Watch is a nonprofit advocacy group offers advice on “How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?”  Breaks down labels into the following groups:  Labels That Tell You a Lot (including “USDA certified organic” and “treated with irradiation”), Labels That Tell You a Little (including “grass fed” and “pasture raised”), and Misleading Labels (including “natural” and “raised without hormones” in pork and poultry). has advice including to read a label, label loopholes, label terms you should know, labels that should be against the law.

The National Dairy Council has a guide to reading labels on dairy products.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site provides information on how to understand and use the nutrition facts label on food. The FDA sets forth information such as serving size, calories per serving (and calories from fat per serving), and the percent daily value of ingredients.  The Web site also explains the meaning of approved health claims such as “good source of dietary fiber,” “low cholesterol,” “extra lean,” “may reduce risk of heart disease,” and “may reduce risk of high  blood pressure and stroke.”

Please note that the Department of Consumer Protection does not endorse the Web sites listed, nor does the Department warrant the accuracy of any of the information on these sites, approve any of their affiliations or funding sources, or endorse any of the opinions expressed on these outside websites. If you have a question or comment about any of these sites, contact them directly.