When people want to get healthier, they make a conscious decision to buy healthier foods at the grocery store -- or at least, what they think are healthier foods.

But unfortunately, the reality is many people are getting duped by misleading package labeling.

What a "natural" food label really means

You'd think foods that come with a giant "natural" label slapped across the front of the package would be, well, all-natural. That's the idea -- marketers want shoppers to think that "natural' food products lack artificial flavors, color additives or preservatives, but that's not necessarily the case.

Read more: 5 cheap options for organic food

In fact, that "natural" label really means nothing. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no formal rule about when foods can be labeled "natural" -- the group only has a policy regarding what that label should mean.

The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

According to the USDA, products with an “All Natural” label can still contain a multitude of additives, hormones, genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), antibiotics, pesticides and more.

 

Most people are misled by food labels

Seasoned organic shoppers and health experts may be aware of these fuzzy guidelines, but average consumers are not.

According to a recent Consumer Reports survey that polled Americans on what they think “natural” on a food label means, more than 80% of people agreed that a “natural” label should mean that a product "isn’t made with synthetic chemicals, artificial additives or colors, toxic pesticides, and genetically modified organisms."

Read more: Look for these labels for healthier food options

The FDA is now considering changing its policies in order to help consumers avoid these types of misleading labels. And the group wants input from people around three key questions:

  • Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”
  • If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and
  • How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

You can send your comments to the FDA here.

How to make healthier food choices

So without strict rules and guidelines around what food makers can claim about their products, how can you make healthier choices and know that they're actually healthier choices? Doing a little research about various products before you head to the store can help you make more informed decisions when you get there. And knowing which labels to look for, and what they mean, can also help.

Here are some things shoppers who want to get healthy may look for -- and the labels you can trust:

  • "All Natural": Look for the "100% USDA Organic" seal or purchase more raw, whole foods. 

  • Green labels/packaging: Look at the foods' certifications — not just the color of the packaging.

  • "Organic": Solution: Look for the "100% USDA Organic" seal.

  • "Whole grain" or "multigrain": Look for the "100% Whole Grain" stamp.

  • "Free range" or "grass-fed": Don't just trust the label. Do some research around specific company practices before buying at the store; also consider purchasing from local farmers.

Read more: 5 label tricks that make you think you're eating healthy