Our food is emblazoned with catchphrases designed to convince us that whatever we’re eating will enrich our health. Lucky Charms, the epitome of a kid’s sugary cereal, sports the “whole grain” claim. The word “natural” has never sprung to mind when I’ve picked up a bag of bright orange colored Cheetos, yet that’s what the wrapper promises. While it’s easy to discount the health lingo on junk food, it can get as confusing as trying to understand a politician when you’re trying to determine which loaf of bread or brand of chicken is a healthy choice for your family.

Health claims on packaged foods have become so common that it can be quite a challenge to ferret out the feel-good jargon from the terminology that actually carries some weight. While many of the claims are just misleading marketing buzzwords, others are USDA regulated terms that provide quality assurance.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you separate the bogus from the legit terms:

Natural and Organic Produce

The word “natural” conveys a comforting reassurance. Unfortunately, it means very little on packaged products because the FDA has failed to define the term and has only “suggested” that it’s not an appropriate claim on foods that contain artificial or synthetic ingredients. This wiggle room has spawned more than 50 lawsuits with no consistent guidelines. Your best bet is to assume it’s only a sales term. “Organic,” on the other hand, is a USDA regulated term that means that the food was produced without the use of hormones, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers, and doesn’t contain genetically modified ingredients.

Grass-Fed and Naturally Raised Red Meat

“Grass-fed” is another throwaway term. Only “100% grass fed” carries a USDA meaning. According to the regulations, the animals must have been raised on a diet of fresh grass or other non-grain crops and have had access to a pasture. If the cattle were raised without growth stimulants, hormones, and not fed animal by-products, then a label of “naturally raised” is appropriate.

Free-Range and Hormone Free Chicken

“Free-range” carries the vague promise that the poultry that was not raised in a small cage, but was allowed access to the outside to “flap, scuttle, and forage as they would in the wild.” Despite this nebulous description, I’d assume a bird that was allowed to walk around and flap its wings would be a happier, fitter chicken and a better one to eat. Beware of the oft-stated claim that the chicken breast is “hormone-free.” What most people don’t realize is that it’s illegal to inject livestock with hormones, so that label only means that the farmer didn’t violate the law.

Multigrain, Whole Wheat, and 100% Whole Grain Bread

Which bread is healthier? Almost all bread packages are adorned with multiple feel-good wholesome terms. Here’s the lowdown. “Multigrain” means only what is says—the bread contains more than one type of grain, far from a guarantee of healthfulness. Be aware that “whole wheat” is not the same as “whole grain.” If you’re looking for the most nutritious bread, keep your eyes peeled for “100% whole grain.” Otherwise, you may get stuck with something that is brown colored, but not much better than white air bread. Speaking of Wonder Bread, its polka dot wrapper lists “wheat flour” as the first ingredient, but if you keep reading you’ll see “high fructose corn syrup” and a litany of other unsavory ingredients. That’s because a bread qualifies as “whole wheat” so long as it has any amount of wheat flour in it. Don’t put it past a manufacturer to add just a smidgen of whole wheat flour in a product to tap into the health conscious market. Only the description “100% whole grain” provides assurance that the entire grain was used in the product, thus making the bread worth eating.

In short:

  • Shop “organic.”
  • Look for “100% grass fed” or “naturally raised.”
  • “Free-range” chicken might be worth selecting.
  • Buy “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain” bread.