'Organic' vs. 'natural' foods: What do they really mean?

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Natural, organic and wholesome are words that practically leap off the grocery store aisles from a wide range of food products. (WLS)

"Natural", "organic" and "wholesome" are words that practically leap off the grocery store aisles from a wide range of food products.

But do those words tell consumers anything scientific about the nutritional value of these foods? The answer is both yes and no.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has had a definition for "healthy" food since 1994, the agency is now taking steps to change its criteria. Until now, almost any food that has come under certain limits for fat, cholesterol, and sodium could qualify. Now, some companies are urging the government to bring the term more into line with the bigger picture of nutrition.

Meanwhile, no FDA definition exists at all for some other words, such as "natural." for several months, the FDA has been accepting public comments on whether they should regulate that term as well.

So when it comes to nutritional information, words can matter. According to a consumer reports survey this week, nearly three in four Americans say they typically buy foods labeled as natural.

For now, the best tip for shoppers may be to look at the side or back of food packaging instead of the front. Those nutritional facts can go a long way in telling you whether that food truly is as healthy as you think.

As for the word "organic" on a package, remember that even if organic foods are pricier than those labeled "healthy" or "natural", the ability to use the label "organic" is much more tightly regulated by the FDA.

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