Have you ever found yourself at the grocery store with good intentions of buying healthy, whole foods for you and your loved ones?

But all the intentions in the world go nowhere if you can’t wade through the mystifying labeling found on every aisle. Organic. Natural. …… What does it all mean? Let’s start with some of the most common labels and demystify them if we can.

Organic: For a food to be labeled “organic” it must have been produced on a farm that is certified organic by a national governing organization in accordance with National Organic Program standards. Processed foods labeled organic must have at least 95% organic ingredients in order to bear this label. Both chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides are forbidden and almost all organic foods are free of irradiation processing, industrial solvents, and chemical additives. The label “organic” is the most heavily regulated term and food with this label are most likely genuine. If you are looking for organic produce check the numeric code found on the sticker. Five digit codes that begin with a 9 are organic. For instance, 94011 is the numeric code for organic bananas, while 4011 is the code for conventional bananas.

100% Organic: Standards for this label are the same as for “organic” except that they must be entirely organic instead of just 95% organic.

Made with Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of the ingredients in these foods must be organic and the remaining ingredients must not be produced with sewage-sludge based products and/or ionizing radiation. This means that if you are purchasing a fresh made salsa that is labeled organic then at least 3/4 of the ingredients are organic.

Conventional: Produce deemed conventional are those that have not been grown under organic practices. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides may be used in accordance with USDA standards. Typical produce codes are 4 digits and begin with a 4.

Genetically Modified: GMO means that scientists have changed the genes of the plant by swapping them with the genes from another plant. This is different from selective breeding by farmers in which the plants are changed through natural selection. This is usually done to make the plant resistant to bugs or pesticides, or to make it grow faster. Many plants have genetically modified versions including soybeans, squash, tomatoes, papayas, potatoes, and corn. Genetically modified produce may have a 5 digit code that begins with an 8, but not all GMOs are labeled because there are not any laws requiring them to bear a label. The label “Non-GMO Project Verified” does mean that the food is not GMO.

Natural: The USDA defines “natural” as a food not containing artificial ingredients or preservatives. Minimal processing is allowed such as mashing an avocado into guacamole.

All Natural: Foods that are labeled “all natural” seem like they would be a good choice, but looking deeper shows that this term means less than you might think. While the term “Natural” is regulated, the phrase “all natural” is not and this means that it may or may not conform to the regulations of “natural.”

Fresh: This label is only regulated for meat products. For produce this term is undefined and may be used in any way that the producer desires. Frozen vegetables may be “fresh” and there is no limit to the age of the produce labeled fresh. 

Being informed about what food labels mean will help you make smart decisions at the grocery store. Look for labels that are important to you and have real meaning. This can help prevent overpaying for inferior products, while allowing you to bring home nutritious food.