When you’re shopping at the grocery store, you will likely find many foods nowadays labeled “natural,” “simply” or “honest” to capture your attention while speeding through the aisles.
These new labels are designed to appeal to growing consumer demand for simpler, easy-to-pronounce ingredients in the foods we choose for our families.
Yet high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been left out of the “natural” trend even though it’s still a natural ingredient, just like ordinary table sugar, says Ruth MacDonald, chair of Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
This summer, Iowa retailer Hy-Vee launched its “Clean Honest Ingredients” labeling initiative. Hy-Vee said the initiative will eliminate more than 200 artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals in 1,000 Hy-Vee label products by July 2018.
In the press release announcing the initiative, Hy-Vee said high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), along with artificial flavors and colors and partially hydrogenated oils, won’t be found in products labeled “Clean Honest Ingredients.”
After customer feedback, Hy-Vee Chief Executive Officer and President Randy Edeker later clarified that high fructose corn syrup is a naturally derived ingredient and Hy-Vee shouldn’t have categorized it the same as synthetic ingredients or artificial flavors and colors.
“It’s unfortunate that in our promotion of this new label, we characterized some ingredients in a way we never intended,” Edeker said in a statement on Hy-Vee’s website.
“We take full responsibility for how naturally derived ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup, were positioned in our press release and on our website and product labels. It was never our intention to portray these naturally derived ingredients as dishonest or unnatural.”
Edeker said Hy-Vee is taking a “hard look” at the list of “Clean Honest” ingredients and is revising it to better characterize naturally derived ingredients.
ISU’s MacDonald stressed that HFCS is a naturally derived ingredient. HFCS is made from corn using simple processing steps, she said. HFCS and table sugar, or sucrose, are made of the same chemical structures. The human body uses HFCS and sucrose the same.
“They have the same taste, are digested and absorbed the same and provide the same amount of calories,” MacDonald said.
In addition, she said HFCS in the ingredient list doesn’t make a product unnatural or less healthy.
Currently, the FDA doesn’t define the term “natural” as a food label, MacDonald noted.
Consumers should be aware that food labels are intended to convince you to buy a product and likely don't convey much nutrition or health information, she said.
“Much debate is going on today about chemicals being used in our food, and the ingredient list can seem scary. But it is important to recognize that all ingredients used in food have to be proven to be safe before they are approved by the FDA,” MacDonald said.
Hy-Vee said it launched the labeling effort in response to consumer demand for simple, easier to read labels; fewer ingredients; and greater transparency when it comes to product ingredient labeling.
“As a retailer with millions of customers with diverse needs, we feel it is our responsibility to provide varying choices so that they can make their own personal decisions when it comes to food purchases and consumption,” Hy-Vee said.
Hy-Vee spokesman Tara Deering-Hansen said the Hy-Vee Customer Care team frequently receives calls, emails and live chats engaging Hy-Vee on this topic.
“Customers often ask us questions about product ingredients, country of origin and local grower information. Increasingly, they ask that we be an advocate of transparent product labeling. That’s why we place nutrition keys on the front of all of our private label and control brand products,” Deering-Hansen said.
If you’re looking to make healthy choices at the grocery store, MacDonald recommends eating lots of fruits and vegetables of all kinds, balanced with healthy proteins such as meat and legumes. Whole grains and dairy are also recommended, she said.
“Processed foods are safe and convenient and give us many healthy choices,” MacDonald added. “Keeping balance in mind, limit the amounts of added sugar — from all sources, salt and high fat foods.
“Maintaining a healthy weight should be the goal for everyone, and that requires a diet that balances calorie intake with physical activity.”