According to an August 2008 issue of Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, we are spending $13 billion per year on foods labeled as “natural.” The word “natural” makes it seem like the food is better for you, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets standards for the nutrition information and health claims that can be made on a food label. Claims made on food labels are to be truthful and not misleading. Still, it’s easy for some claims to be confusing.

The three terms that many people are confused about are “natural,” “healthy” and “organic.” Many people think they all mean about the same thing, but there are different, specific meanings for all of these terms.

For a food to be labeled “healthy,” it must meet certain criteria for the amount of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium it contains, and have specific minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals or other beneficial nutrients.

If a food is labeled “organic,” it must meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the way the food is grown or produced. (It is important to note that the USDA makes no claims that organically grown food is more nutritious or safer than nonorganically produced food.)

When a food is labeled “natural,” it means that the product does not contain any synthetic or artificial ingredients or is minimally processed. The food label should explain how they are using the term, such as “no added colorings” or “no added artificial ingredients” along with the “natural” claim. A bag of fried snack chips could contain the term “natural” on the bag if the manufacturer added no artificial ingredients, but the chips could still be loaded with fat, calories and sodium.

If a food is labeled “natural,” don’t assume that it is a healthy choice. It only means no artificial ingredients have been added or that the food is minimally processed. Look at the label closely to see the amount of fat, sugar, salt, vitamins, minerals and calories for a better idea of the healthfulness of the food.