It isn’t easy to admit this, but I recently bought a food because of its packaging. Or more specifically, I fell for the label on the box.

I was shopping for deli meat, and I was overwhelmed by all the different choices. So I decided to buy the package labeled “natural,” even though it cost a dollar more than what I usually buy.

Like a lot of Iowans this time of year, I’m on a health-food kick as I attempt to fight winter weight gain, and the “natural” label seemed like the healthier choice.

Now I consider myself a well-informed food shopper. I know that the “natural” label isn’t specifically defined by federal regulations. After a quick Google search, I found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows the “natural” label on meats and poultry if the product doesn’t contain artificial ingredients or colors.

When I returned home and looked a little closer at the packaging, I read that one of the ingredients listed was “natural flavorings.” So “flavorings” were added, they just weren’t artificial, or man-made.

However, if I had taken the time to look at the nutrition facts on the box, I would have realized that the two products were almost identical nutritionally. Wasn’t my original goal to eat healthier? I should have looked for a low-sodium choice, not a “natural” label.

It turns out, I’m not the only label reader out there. According to the latest Iowa Farm Bureau Food & Farm Index ™, about two-thirds of Iowa grocery shoppers (68 percent) say they pay attention to labels on their food. Among those who do, the highest percentages say labels indicating that the food was raised in the U.S. (50 percent) give them the information they are seeking, followed by raised locally (43 percent), hormone free (36 percent) or antibiotic free (32 percent).

Unfortunately, these labels can be misleading. For example, no artificial or added hormones are used in U.S. poultry production, so any brand of chicken can be labeled “raised without hormones.”

In addition, all meat and poultry products are antibiotic free. In fact, it is illegal for animals with antibiotic residues to enter the food system. When antibiotics are used in livestock and poultry production, strict withdrawal periods must be followed before the animals are permitted into the food chain. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors meat and poultry to ensure strict compliance.

Sometimes, you can’t help but rely on labels when you are faced with so many choices at the grocery store. But if you’re a label reader like me, don’t overlook the nutrition facts on the package to help make a healthier choice.

For more information about food label definitions, visit the Best Food Facts website. The USDA also explains the difference between “organic” and “natural” labels.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is the Senior Features Writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.