You may be paying more for meaningless food labels

You see them every time you’re in a grocery store. Labels with promising claims like “natural,” “very low sodium,” and “sugar-free.” But what do they really mean, and should you pay more for products because of them?

We turned to the experts at Consumer Reports to help us cut through the confusion and decode labels so we know what to look for and what to skip.

“Some food labels are regulated by the FDA, but others aren’t -- and they may not mean what you think they do,” warned Consumer Reports Editor Trisha Calvo.

Looking for pesticide-free?

If you want to choose food that’s produced without harmful pesticides and fertilizers, look for the USDA Organic Seal, which has stringent verification rules.

Calvo says you can disregard labels that say “pesticide-free” or “zero pesticides,” because those terms aren’t regulated.

Looking for sodium content?

If you’re trying to cut back on salt, look for labels with “low sodium” or “very low sodium” on them. Low-sodium foods have 140 mg or less per serving, and very low-sodium foods have 35 mg or less per serving.

“No salt added” and “unsalted” don’t always mean sodium-free. These terms mean that no salt was added during processing, but some foods naturally contain sodium.

RELATED: Decoding “egg-spensive” egg labels to save you money

Looking for sugar content?

Now to tame a sweet tooth: You’ll want to look for labels that say, “no added sugars” or “sugar-free.” And “no added sugars” means just that.

“For foods like tomato sauce and ketchup look for “no added sugars” on food labels but not “sugar-free” because tomatoes naturally contain sugar. “It’s added sugars that you need to be mindful of,” said Calvo.

“Lightly sweetened,” “slightly sweet,” “a tad sweet,” and other similar terms are NOT regulated.

“Reduced sugar” IS regulated by the FDA. It means that the food has at least 25% less sugar than a comparable product. Whether that’s a good thing depends on the starting amount.

Looking at bread labels?

Now to the bread aisle. Calvo says yes, you can count on these claims:

  • “100% whole grain”
  • “100% whole wheat”

But she says products with labels that say “multigrain” or “made with whole grains” may actually contain refined grains.

Consumer Reports experts found fewer than half of the breads in a recent review labeled with terms like those were 100% whole grain.

Claims like “excellent source of” or “high in” fiber guarantee that you’ll get at least 20% of the 28-gram daily value, or 5.5 grams, per serving.

RELATED: Bread can be good for you

Unsure of nutritional value?

If you are still not sure about an item you want to buy, Calvo says to flip the product over.

“The ingredients list and the nutrition facts panel are a better source of the nutritional information than the front-of-package claims,” she said.