Are Food Labels Lying to You? New Corn Syrup Study Suggests Yes

By , SparkPeople Blogger
A new study about beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is making headlines. Published in the journal Obesity (see the full article here), researchers found that random samples of HFCS-sweetened drinks actually contained far more fructose than expected.

"I told you so," is what all the opponents of the corn-based sweetener are saying, using this study as proof that corn syrup is worse than sugar and should be avoided. I was taken aback myself. While I don't believe that high fructose corn syrup is any worse for us than other types of sugar, I avoid it sometimes but won't shun every food made with it. (After all, I would be very cranky without the occasional HFCS-containing Twizzler in my life.)

While this study seems to be about corn syrup being worse for us than we thought, it's actually about something else entirely: whether food manufacturers are telling us the truth about what's in their products. Allow me to explain.

As you've learned, high fructose corn syrup is a combination of glucose and fructose. A ratio of 55% fructose and 45% glucose is typically used to sweeten beverages, yet researchers found that some drinks labeled to contain high fructose corn syrup contained much more fructose than that. As Marion Nestle reported on her blog, Food Politics, this study found that the sampling of HFCS-containing beverages:
  • Contained 18% more fructose than expected
  • Seemed to be made with high fructose corn syrup that is actually 65% fructose, not 55%. Coke, Pepsi and Sprite all fell into this category.
  • Contained 59% fructose on average. The Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, and Arizona Ice Teas that were analyzed all contained close to 60% fructose.
According to the study, "results showed that the total sugar content of the beverages ranged from 85 to 128% of what was listed on the food label." The message is clear, right? High fructose corn syrup is bad for you! Even worse than we thought!

Not so fast.

When I asked SparkPeople's head dietitian, Becky Hand, about the implications of this study and whether it would affect any of the coverage we've previously done on HFCS—or SparkPeople's stance—she said no. Why? Because this information, assuming the study was well-structured and the results accurate (both of which are questionable at this point), doesn't change how the body metabolizes and uses high fructose corn syrup. What it does indicate, according to Becky, is "a problem with the information presented on food labels being different than what the food actually contains when it's analyzed."

Or to put it another way, perhaps food manufacturers aren't being honest with us. They're reporting that they are using high fructose corn syrup on their ingredients list, which has a legal definition and should technically be no higher than 55% fructose. But in reality, it seems that they're using something else entirely—I suppose we could call it extra high fructose corn syrup. Maybe they're simply using their own concoction of lots of fructose and some glucose, and just labeling it as HFCS. Who knows, really.

A couple years ago, my local news station did an undercover report where they took food samples from various national chain restaurants and had them analyzed for calories, fat and other nutrients, only to find that many foods contained double or triple the fat and calories reported by restaurant websites. Although we can expect some error when people are making our food by hand, manufactured food should be consistent.

Becky pointed out to me that several studies in recent years have begun to uncover inaccuracies on food labels—that what you see isn't always what you get. I for one have always been skeptical. Have you ever looked up the nutrition facts for a food and thought, "NO WAY" because the size of the serving and the decadent taste of the food seemed way too good to be true for so few calories? I think that all the time! Maybe I'm a conspiracy theorist, but I've always wondered how much I could trust what the labels say I'm really eating. It's just like that a "Seinfeld" episode about the delicious taste of a no-fat frozen yogurt, that when analyzed, turned out to be regular fat after all!

The government requires certain things to be listed on food labels and expects that food companies will follow their guidelines and post them honestly and accurately. However, as Coach Tanya has told me, the FDA allows rounding and errors up to 20%, which means that you could be eating 20% more than you think. But do we really know that they are even that accurate? Does anyone really check that? The answer, which may surprise some, is no.

If this study is any indication, I think we may all want to read food labels with a grain of salt from now on, knowing that the ingredients and nutrition facts presented might just be a general idea of what you're eating—not a hard fact.

While this study doesn't make me feel any differently about corn syrup than I did in the past, it definitely makes me question whether I can believe what I read on a food label. It also drives home the point about cooking more of your own food and avoiding processed foods in general, since what you think you're really eating could be anything but.

Do you believe food labels are honest and accurate or do you find them hard to believe? What's your take away from this study?

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I'm not clear whether from reading this whether the fact that the amount of fructose is in the mix differs from the legal definition. I avoid HFCS syrup whenever possible, it is highly refined, and the less refined the better, plus I'm trying to cut back on all forms of sugar, period.

What I find shocking is that the FDA allows errors of 20%. When I have a can of soup, I usually consume the entire can, which consists of 2-2.5 servings. A can of chili which has 600 calories (for 2 servings) may turn into 840 calories! And if the salt is off (many containing 45% RDA per serving) or potassium, it could present serious, if not fatal results in persons with heart disease or kidney failure! Report
I figured as much because one thing I've learned in life is that when money is involved man will try to figure out any plethora of ways to get it from your pocket and into his. Report
It says: perhaps food manufacturers aren't being honest with us.

Surprise, surprise! Sales and marketing will almost always exaggerate if they can and at the very least, use the most favorable statistics they can find. The same usually hold true for natural or organic manufactures. Fresh is probably best though they can make exaggerated claims on that, too. Just fewer. Report
I don't trust the food labels either. I often wonder what they put in most of the foods since noone is watching. And why do they use so much salt in foods? Sweet drinks too. High blood pressure is a silent killer and everything that is packed or frozen is laced with salt. Even foods sold at Subway restuarants and everyone endorses their menu, especially the American Heart Association, but it is all laced with salt!! I wonder about them all the time. The food is just as salty as any other deli product. Report

It is not surprising that packaged ood manufacturers would attempt to use a bit more of a less expensive ingredient if they believe they might be able to get away with it. The name "corn sugar" is just a convenient excuse to use more of it in processed food rather than using other ingredients. Report
use a food scale but realize even with it - precise measurements (raw veggies & fruits) of nutrients etc will not be 100% Measurement & results from these items as well as food labels should be taken as a frame of reference on how well you are eating nutrionally & an indication of improvements needed- not as an exact picture. Report
Many "good for you" companies are worse, trader joes has been cited for many horribly inaccurate labeling for example Report
The last point is well taken; use unprocessed/whole foods as much as possible.

We kind of know they exaggerate the good features of a product, why does it sound strange that they would be trying to lessen the impact of "bad" features like sugar, fat, carbs, whatever it is they're advertising "against"? Report
I don't believe the labels most of the time. I've had an experience in my country with this and took it up with the company and haven't really gotten a good response. Even with some of the nutrition bars, they are so sweet I am doubtful that the calories recorded can be accurate. Report
I try to buy all fresh foods...very little processed....... fiber one cereal is the only processed food I buy on a regular basis...we eat out a few times a year and at place where we know the use fresh foods Report
I'm not buying processed foods unless I just have no other choice. I'm buying Organic and staying with fresh foods even though they cost more, I'm saving on not buying junk food and fast foods. Report
Healthy skepticism is a good attitude towards everything and all institutions (not just government, please). But not cynicism and paranoia. It does irk me, however, that the labels and marketing seems meant to mislead us and trip us up. (PARISTASAI, I love that quote!)

And as far as the fructose, HFCS goes, if food is sweet tasting and doesn't have sugar substitutes, expect to find some form of sugar in it! Whether it's 20% more than the label says seems immaterial. Just eat a little and move on, then try to avoid sugars in your diet in general. I'm a pre-diabetic and unfortunately, partial to sugar found in pastries, baked items and candy. Soda and sweetened drinks however, are not things I care for. Report
I agree we should educate ourselves because that food manufacturers can't always be trusted. However, we're not chemists; we're consumers, and we can't conduct lab tests while shopping.

The FDA was established in the days of caveat emptor, and one of its mandates is the regulation of claims made on labels. They're letting us down, and perhaps we're letting them off too easily. Report
Food labels are a good guide, but obviously this study shows they can't be 100% trusted, which is what I take away from it. I read the article about HFCS versus sugar, and since they're both metabolized the same, I don't see the harm in eating foods with it once in a while - but sweets should always be in moderation anyway, fake flavor or natural.

People just need to be better informed! I was just at the store today and over-heard some ladies talking about some veggie chips and one of them made the comment they were healthy - I'm like, junk food is junk food whether it's organic, natural or not! I'm just so surprised people don't know any better, but I devour health mags and I'm on SP everyday, and I just don't realize how ignorant people are about nutrition.

Bottom line, eat less processed foods, and enjoy everything in moderation. Report
To Linedanceb: WalMart, and every other company, now has to put that on the labels due to so many people having food allergies. It says nothing about whether or not the factory is "clean". I personally have no food allergies but I'm sure the people who do appreciate the warning. Report
Since starting with SparkPeople I have found myself eating less and less prepackaged foods. I still eat granola bars, cereal, tortilla chips, fruit cups and frozen yogurt (a new find) but I make an effort to choose brands that list a limited amount of ingredients. 'Eat in moderation' has been my approach to my diet change both in the quality and quantity of food I put in my mouth. Report
I agree that food labels don't tell you the whole story. In my opinion they "sugar coat" the info on all the stuff that is unhealthy. The best way to avoid that is to eat fresh from the garden or from a farmer's market.

I agree with TWOOFTHREE. Foods in Europe are much better for you. I mean they all are healthier in the aspect of whole wheat and grain, natural (I do mean natural) and also in how much sugar they contain. Labels are alot more clearer to read they tell you more than they do here.
All in all people in Europe are more health conscious than they are here with or without label. Most have their own garden even if it is on a patio in containers. Report
I find it necessary to read EVERY ingredient in a processed food. Truthful? In the case of Wal*Mart brand, Great Value, no. They take naturally gluten free ingredient foods (cashews, chocolate syrup, tortilla chips, strawberry jam, sherbet etc.) and, after the ingredient list state: This product manufactured in a plant that processes and so may contain peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish, soy.... To me this indicates that their factories are sloppy/unclean or, they are "crying wolf". Wait, maybe I do believe their labels :-0 When I see "wheat" as a possible ingredient, it goes back on the shelf. Maybe this is a protection again HFCS also! Report
"The most important thing to remember about food labels is that you should avoid foods that have labels." ~ Dr. Joel Fuhrman

While that may be difficult to do 100%, it really is better to eat whole, fresh foods that have not been processed.

I never did believe food labels were entirely accurate. There are always variances in manufacturing and testing. Now if they are deliberate that bothers me.
Sam Report
I think that this ambiguity and the fact that HFCS is a manmade (not found in nature in that form) sweetener, it falls in line with aspartame, and other manmade sweeteners. What we think of is sweet as far as the American diet would be sickeningly sweet to someone who didn't over use sweeteners. It is so bad that we don't even taste sugar in foods containing a small amount for flavor. Just go atleast a month without it and you will see what I mean. I dramatically cut sugar, not to zero, but I lowered sugar intake dramatically and now that I taste things I used to eat and they are overly sweet. It is because we have conditioned our tastebuds to expect that added sugar. Kids won't eat fruits because they are not loaded up with the stuff like candy and cokes. I avoid as much manmade things in my foods as I can and I try to never eat processed foods. The stuff that goes into them in order to make them last longer on the shelf are not good for our bodies. The bottom line of course with all sweeteners is that they should be used sparingly. Even Stevia and Eryrithol which are plant based and sugar alcohol respectively have adverse affects when used too frequently. Now that I have gone through the dramatic reduction of sugar usage, I can reasonably use sugar in my diet and I can also appreciate other flavors besides sweetness! Report
I have never believed food labels. But then I'm skeptical of depending too much on "nutrition facts" anyway. I think if you tested six portions of fresh spinach from six different locations, you'd never get exactly the same data. All labels, calorie counts, nutrition amounts are just estimates. The key is to eat the best quality of food you can and be aware of portion control at all times. Report
@Archimides. But aren't sprinkles high in calories too? They tend to be sweet. Report
I believe that some labels are wrong, but most aren't. I don't think the ones that I noticed were wrong were trying to be deliberately deceptive. I think they may have miscalculated the number of calories per serving.

Example, around this time of year, I do like to indulge in a candy apple. I checked out the label on one brand that said a small candy apple with jimmies (that's sprinkles to the rest of the US) had 130 cals. That same brand had a candy apple topped with crushed nuts. That too was listed as 130 cals. Technically, the apple coated with nuts should have had a higher calorie count since crushed peanuts are high in calorie. And there were a lot of nuts. ;) I figured the candy apple covered in nuts had to be around 200 cals, not 130.

So, there definitely are some incorrect labels out there. I think a person just had to be an informed consumer.

I'm just glad we don't have much of that HFCS-stuff here in Europe.

As for batch variances? What kind of quality control could you possibly be using if batches can vary by 20%.

That's just a way to allow manufacturers to fudge their numbers by 20%. Report
Allowing up to 20% error is just ridiculous. We need to give the FDA more power, and appoint health-minded professionals who won't tolerate this nonsense. Report
Um, HFCS is worse for you. The ratios of sugars makes it easier to metabolize. It takes more work to metabolize regular sugar than HFCS.
/ Report
Only proves that we should only eat hand prepared food as often as possible. Report
I expect manufactured food to vary. I know that even using a measuring cup in my own kitchen may not be enought to accurately indicate calories. Humidy, ambiant light, and many other variables can affect that. I think that's why it is so important to focus on eating as many whole foods as possible and put most of my effort towards exercising to lose weight, not under-eating. Report
I don't believe food labels are 100% accurate. Report
I'm not surprised, is my basic reaction. Who ever believes what a company says about its own products? it's called advertising, and, given the current lack of ethical education, the 'bottom line' means more than accuracy. Drug companies, car manufacturers, --the food industry-- who's surprised.

The FDA hasn't had any teeth for enforcement in a timely manner for decades.

I have increasingly moved to buying ingredients and putting them together myself (I can't call it 'cooking;' I am not a good cook.) I can combine things, however, and that's how I've cut my sodium consumption by 120%, my sugar consumption by 100%, and my chemical consumption almost to 0.

The first example I know about of the food industry manipulating food is the margarine-with-color-packet from WW2. That was honest; the color came separately, and you added it if you wanted to have margarine that looked more like butter. But now it's not open and honest and transparent--but nothing in our culture is.

Surprised? no. Sad? yes. Report
I've just eliminated most processed foods from my diet. This helps cut back on salt, sugar (by any name), and fat. I eat vegetables, fruits, whole or sprouted grains, lean meats, nuts like almonds (raw or dry roasted). Report
perhaps if our government took the money they like to spend on bailouts and put it into the FDA, we would have someone to actually validate food labels. Report
I believe fresh is still the best way to avoid all the additives. My new motto - if I don't know what it is or how to pronounce it, it doesn't come to my house! Report
Thank you for a balanced comment on this study. I have always felt that we go overboard in proclaiming all kinds of things "bad", when in reality it is the gross over consumption of these things that is so bad for us. Small amounts of every kind of natural food are not bad for us; on the contrary we need all these to be healthy (in the right quantities, of course). Report
While I'd love to believe that companies want our trust and therefore would try to be trustworthy, I just don't think it is possible. It seems that being quick about food preparation is more important than the actual quality of the food itself.

I have a feeling this isn't something that is going to change anytime soon. Report
I sure don't trust food labels now!

I make most of my food from scratch and eat lots of raw foods, and I've pretty much stopped using refined grains like bread and pastas and switched to whole grains or sprouted grains, like quinoa, cracked wheat, and whole wheatberries and ryeberries. So I don't really have to look at nutrition labels often anymore, and when I do buy processed foods I try to buy from producers I trust, like Food for Life and Amy's Kitchen. If anyone knows something bad about those companies then tell me now! Report
I don't always buy them. I trust my Atkins counter booklet much more. But eating fresh is the best way to avoid the lies & distortions. Report
Was it Abraham Lincoln who said, "Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear" ? Report
I do not believe labels on food products are honest or accurate,and beside when I read them I am not sure they are saying? I think if we really know just what are in the foods and drinks we take we would probably be sicker? Report
Definitely another reason to eat "clean" whenever possible! There's no fooling me with nutrition labels on raw fruit and veggies, or stuff I make at home! Report
I agree with "paint" about how the industry has hijacked our regulatory agencies. I think "Truth in advertising" use to be a technical and moral standard. Now, no one seems to care. It comes down to making good choices on our own for ourselves. Who else are you going to depend on? Only yourself. Report
I try to avoid process foods and HFCS as much as possible. Our bodies were not made to process all the chemicals in those foods. It is difficult but I do the best I can to eat a natural diet. In a long run, I think my body will thank me for the effort. Report
I think this article is kinda funny because people are supposed to trust food labels (for the most part) HFCS is sugar and should be listed in the sugar spot on the food label. So why were researchers surprised there was more HFCS than expected in the drinks? Sounds like the FDA needs to tighten up on the food industry once again. Report
My take away from this article is that it is further proof our regulatory agencies have been hijacked by the industries they are supposed to police. No surprise there.

As far as HFCS this study says it all for me-

The meme that all sugars are the same being spread by the industry and it's paid scientists is good PR but questionable science. Report
I do not think the food labels are entirely accurate all the time. Batch variations could result in large variations in ingredients, which is why the 20% error is part of the FDA rules. The manufacturer will analyze every batch they make, but as long as it falls within the guidelines they won't remake the labels. It would not be financially feasible for a company to create a new label for each batch of food they made. The containers the food is placed is likely created at a different facility by a different company.

I have always felt the label were averages, meaning that an individual food may be quite different than actually shown. For this reason, I try to eat closer to the lower end of my calorie limit and eat higher only if I am truly hungry. Report
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