Many leading medical and nutrition groups, as well as some of the nation’s harshest food industry critics, agree that high fructose corn syrup, a natural sweetener made from corn, is nutritionally the same as sugar. However, new research by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) shows that marketing tactics used by many food companies to promote their products may confuse and mislead consumers.

Results of a new consumer research study and first-of-its kind marketing analysis of high fructose corn syrup–free marketing claims examined the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of more than 1,000 consumers and nearly 175 food companies. Despite very few consumers (3.6 percent) reporting they have concerns about high fructose corn syrup (down from 8.3 percent in 2008), 44.3 percent of grocery shoppers indicate they have heard or read about food products marketed as high fructose corn syrup–free, according to the CRA’s new data.

“It’s easy to see how some consumers could be led astray into thinking foods without high fructose corn syrup are somehow more healthful, but that isn’t the case,” says nutrition expert Christine Rosenbloom, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, Atlanta, and contributor to the CRA’s consumer survey design. “Products labeled as high fructose corn syrup–free are clearly trying to project a ‘health halo’ that doesn’t exist.”

When consumers, particularly women and parents, are armed with facts about high fructose corn syrup, they often view food companies that market products as “high fructose corn syrup-free” more negatively. According to RA’s research findings, nearly half (46.9 percent) of consumers surveyed feel misled by food companies making high fructose corn syrup–free claims, and women (29.2 percent) and parents (34.2 percent) are most likely to feel strongly misled by food companies making high fructose corn syrup-free claims.

The CRA survey revealed that while the majority of consumers (54.4 percent) indicate they always or usually read food labels, women (60 percent) are more likely than men (45.5 percent) to examine food labels. According to those surveyed, fat (59.3 percent), followed by calories (52.3 percent), sugar (36.8 percent), and salt (30.9 percent) topped the list of what nutrients shoppers were most likely to be concerned about in making food choices. Concern over calories made a significant jump from earlier research by the CRA, up from 31.8 percent in 2008.

“The overall nutrition message that ‘calories count’ is coming through,” says Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association. “When it comes to calories from sugar or high fructose corn syrup, they’re exactly the same. Food shoppers are increasingly aware of that fact, and seeing through marketing tactics that might suggest otherwise.”

CRA reviewed publicly available news releases and/or Web sites of nearly 175 food products and companies—ranging from small food manufacturers to multi-national food manufacturers—that made claims or statements regarding products being “high fructose corn syrup-free” from February 2007 until present.

CRA’s analysis showed that while nearly half (44 percent) made simple statements without health judgments in calling out products as “high fructose corn syrup free,” a significant number mischaracterized the caloric sweetener in their materials. For example: 33 percent used negative language to characterize high fructose corn syrup, including nearly 4 percent that made extreme and blatantly false misrepresentations about the sweetener; 5 percent touted sugar as “healthier”; 18 percent claimed high fructose corn syrup is not natural; and 19.5 percent used qualifiers to imply that products are more healthful without high fructose corn syrup.

“It’s ironic that food companies often trumpet products as ‘high fructose corn syrup-free,’” Rosenbloom says. “Can you imagine if a product made with high fructose corn syrup noted it was ‘sugar free’? Thankfully, when the facts are shared, consumers quickly get wise to marketing tactics that paint a misleading picture on health.”