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how diligent are you about reading labels?

my mother apparently doesn't always bother to read labels for ingredients...which i find bizarre considering that she has a potentially fatal food allergy. anyway, it got me wondering if chowhounds generally read the labels for ingredients and/or nutritional info before they try a new product.

those who know me are already aware that i'm a completely anal retentive label detective, but i'm curious about how concerned all of you are about knowing what's in something before you buy it...

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  1. I don't usually check all the ingredients, but I will usually give the fat/calorie info a quick scan. My only food allergy is to something that doesn't make it's way into most things, so I don't usually check for it, unless it's something that is likely to have it. Sometimes I'll compare the ingredients list of two products to try to make the better choice.

    1. I'm pretty good about it. But, then again, I rarely buy products that require labels. I don't eat cereals, etc. I would say condiments (ketchup, hoisin sauce, XO sauce, fish sauce, etc.) are generally the things in my kitchen that have labels on them. My grocery list tends to be generally fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and seafood. And even though Heinz Ketchup has things like HFCS, I don't really care because I don't eat ketchup by the cup. With a lot of Asian condiments, I try to avoid those with added MSG as it makes me very thirsty.

      It is pretty strange about your mom who doesn't read labels because of a serious allergy. I'm only really seriously allergic to one item and am really careful about it as it's an incredibly strong allergy.

      15 Replies
      1. re: Miss Needle

        Heinz has an organic catsup with no HFCS and it is waaay tastier than the regular. It tastes like it did long ago.

        Last year, I started checking ingrediants. It was pretty shocking how much junk is in even the simplest foods.

        I think some thread about avocado dip with no avocado in it got me started. Then sliced cheese ... now I just check everything out ... even organic foods.

        It is rare I'll buy anything with HFCS in it. I think even regular corn syrup throws off the flavor so it is unlikely I'll buy that.

        Sometimes I'll look at sodium, fat and calories, but not always since I don't buy much junk.

        1. re: rworange

          Yeah, I've had the organic Heinz before and definitely agree that it tastes superior to regular Heinz. Had no idea it didn't have HFCS. The bottle I have in the fridge now is regular Heinz because I really needed it at the time and just got it from my corner deli where they didn't have a huge selection. But I'll make sure to be more diligent in finding my organic Heinz from now on. Thanks for the info!

          1. re: Miss Needle

            Any organic product will not have HFCS in it. I still check, but I don't think they can lablel it organic if it does.

            1. re: rworange

              you're right about that. products that are labeled as either *natural* or organic cannot contain HFCS.

              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                I'm not sure that's true. There is no organic HFCS, so there isn't any that can be used in organic foods. But I don't think there's any actual prohibition on using it.

                The reason there's no organic HFCS is that the whole point of HFCS is to use overabundant cheap corn. I wonder if now that corn prices have skyrocketed more food producers will switch back to sugar.

                To get back to your original question, I read labels a lot. I avoid HFCS and transfats, and also low quality oils like cottonseed and soybean oil and canola oil (because I hate the fishy taste). That's not to say that I don't occasionally consume products with those ingredients, but I try to avoid them. I also try to avoid purchasing foods that have ingredients that are unnecessary if the product is made correctly (yogurt that has thickeners, etc.). So if there are half a dozen brands on the shelf, I'll read the labels before I decide which one (if any) to buy. Sometimes the ingredients are pretty much the same, but sometimes there are significant differences that aren't apparent in any other way (label claims, price, etc.).

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  update in light of ruth's reply, which was correct - there's no such thing as organic HFCS.

                  a quote from an FDA spokesperson re: the use of HFCS in products labeled as "natural":

                  "The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our (…) policy regarding the use of the term 'natural'...Moreover, the corn starch hydrolysate, which is the substrate used in the production of HFCS, may be obtained through the use of safe and suitable acids or enzymes. Depending on the type of acid(s) used to obtain the corn starch hydrolysate, this substrate itself may not fit within the description of 'natural' and, therefore, HCFS produced from such corn starch hydrolysate would not qualify for a 'natural' labeling term."

                  of course the FDA hasn't passed any actual laws or official regulations about it yet...we can only hope they will.

                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    Yes, you guys are totally correct that an organic product cannot have HFCS in it. I think a product can be labeled that it contains organic products, but still has HFCS, which shows one must really be careful reading labels!

                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                      Being allergic to corn & corn derivatives, I read all labels- and that isn't even enough to keep me safe as corny products are used as production aids and therefore don't have to be labeled (ie- conveyor belts dusted with corn starch, produce & meats are sprayed with a corn based citric acid wash).

                      As for corn syrup being natural, I agree with you that it isn't, but unfortunately the Corn Refiners ASSociation argues just the opposite: http://www.corn.org/CornSweetenerNatu... ...just as natural as honey & sugar, I don't think so.

            2. re: Miss Needle

              it was a condiment that sparked this. i read the label on a BBQ sauce she bought for herself & my dad, and the first ingredient was HFCS. when i mentioned it to her she said, "oh, that can't be good for us. i don't think we should eat that. throw it out." which, of course i did...but why she bought it in the first place without looking at the ingredients is beyond me.

              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                Wow, first ingredient as HFCS! I would think it would be on the lines of something like tomato puree or something.

                As I eat condiments in small amounts, I'm not as vigilant reading labels as other stuff. For example, it probably takes me over a year for me and my husband to finish a small bottle of ketchup. It's a balance that I'm comfortable with -- probably stems from my rebellion against my dad's orthorexia. I was fine with him doing whatever he did as long as he kept to himself about it. But I grew up getting really annoyed with my dad taking it to the extreme with other people. When we would go out to eat, he would order his own special dish and make comments during the entire meal about how unhealthy our stuff was (and it wasn't like we were eating at Mc Donalds or anything like that). He'd be criticizing us for eating something like pho because of the MSG, sodium and fattier cuts of beef, saying how it would be bad for our cholesterol, etc. (even though my cholesterol level has always ranged from 130-150). For the most part, I'm alert and concerned about what I put into my body. But I'm not 100% about it. I'm more concerned about what I put in my body over a long period of time. For example, I don't drink soda but may have a can with HFCS occasionally (and by occasionally, I mean a few times a year). One soda every few months won't kill me, but drinking soda on a regular basis is probably not the best thing to be doing.

                I'm not surprised that the woman didn't read labels at all. While most people I know are cautious about the foods and drinks the ingest, I know there are also people out there who eat Mc Donalds Big Macs on a daily basis. I think people need to find the balance that works for them.

                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    oy, i'm not surprised you feel compelled to rebel in some way. my brother's kids complain about how annoying he is with his insistence on healthy food at all times, and i get really upset when i see the way he controls their food at the table & scolds them when they want something he doesn't think they should have.

                    as i've mentioned before, i've struggled with eating disorders for most of my life, and i've been an orthorexic for at least the last 12 or so years...but the one thing i've always made sure never to do is foist my unsolicited opinion about the nutritional quality of other people's food on them. i've always figured if i leave others in peace to eat what they want, they'll grant me the same respect. [of course it never works out that way, but a girl can hope...]

                  2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    GHG, I thought you may be interested in this abstract about the effect of nutrition education and differences in dietary intake according to Myers-Briggs personality types. I haven't seen the entire study, but there are already a couple of things I wanted to mention. The sample size is relatively small (331), and they only studied college students. And I don't know exactly what criteria they used to define a "healthy" diet.

                    According to this study, those who prefer extroversion, intuition or judgment had tendencies for better dietary habits. Kind of interesting as I'm the opposite of that (ISFP), and I don't think my diet is that terrible.


                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      If nothing else, personality-type tendencies say nothing about conscious effort. Except in extreme cases, a lot of tendencies/habits can be overcome by purposeful action. In other words, if you have reason to "care" about having a good diet - for whatever reason - you will make more effort to have one than someone who "happens to find themselves" having eating habits that "coincidentally" happen to be healthy even if they don't care whether they're healthy or not.

                      A grad student study is likely to be fairly superificial - if very defensible - but the age range actually seems good to me. Beyond basic issues like weight-loss or philosophic-related diets (vegetarianism, etc), most college students are pretty un-self-conscious about eating habits - "statistically speaking" they haven't started worrying about things like cholesterol and heart attacks yet and they've only recently gotten "full control" over their own diets. It might not be a good guide to their eating habits 10 or 20 years later, but it's not a bad context for measuring "soft" personality-based correlations like this without having to try to filter out a lot of data extraneous to the question at hand...

                      1. re: Miss Needle

                        pretty cool - thanks for posting the link. i'd have to read the entire paper to see the validity of the measures, etc., but i do find it interesting that i "fit the profile" according to the abstract. i'm an ENFJ...and as we all know, a freak about nutrition.

                  3. Since I saw my doctor last August I do more reading in food stores than I do at home (and I loves my litteratour).

                    1. I check sugar and salt contents. But if I have some kind of potentially fatal food allergy, sure I'll check labels for that. I also check expiration dates. I have often found packaged food past their expiration dates still sitting on the shelves.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: PeterL

                        Tip: Demand a huge discount for "expired" items.

                        1. re: mrbozo

                          actually, i always find a department or store manager & show them the expired product - there's no excuse for leaving that stuff on the shelf. i find it occurs with disturbing regularity in dairy cases.

                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                            Since I now only buy organic milk, I'm stunned at the expiration dates! Have a half gallon of Horizon Organic in the refrigerator right now I've been working on for over a week with an expiration date of July 22nd! How's that for longevity! Not nearly so long on organic eggs. The ones I bought yesterday have a July 18th date.

                            When it comes to reading labels, always always always on new items I haven't bought before. And a good part of the time, I put things back after reading. Not so much on things I have used before, but I really should. Companies are changing formulations all the time, and I do have allergies!

                            But now that I think about it, I generally don't read labels on snack foods I really want... I guess I stupidly figure I'll only give 'em up if they bite me! Hello Pringles vinegar and salt! '-)

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              Horizon is ultrapasteurized, which is why it lasts so long -- it doesn't have anything to do with whether it's organic. In fact, the reason Horizon ultrapasteurized is that organic milk doesn't sell as quickly as conventional milk and is often not produced locally, so it needs to have longer shelf life.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Thanks! I have found a website where you can order the low temp minimal pasturized organic milk and have it delivered regularly. Even in glass bottles if you want them! Haven't yet found out what the shipping costs would be, but I found them in a search for grass fed butter. If I'm changing over to good cholesterol and Omega 3s in beef, why not in butter and milk too? Meanwhile, Horizon is it locally.

                      2. I do watch for HFCs, thank goodness the FDA is now cracking down on the "natural" label and if a products contains them they will no longer be able to advertise them as "natural. I watch for sugars and carbs. I have no fatal food allergies. I cook pretty much from scratch and buy very little processed food.

                        1. I rarely buy packaged good but when I do a check for trans fats, HFCS, calorie count, serving size and sodium. I also scan to ensure that I can pronounce all of the ingredients.


                          1. I was surprised to see that Claussen's pickles have HFCS in them... never bothered to read the label until recently. Worcestershire sauce, too. I'm definitely more vigilant now.

                            9 Replies
                            1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                              Hopefully there will be one good thing that will come out of all of this disastrous and heartbreaking flooding... Corn prices are going to go through the roof, and hopefully that will make a serious dent in the use of HFCS! A couple of weeks ago I heard rumors that many cola companies were going to go back to sugar, then I heard they've found some new substitute for sugar instead... Bummer.

                              1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                Which brand of Worcestershire has HFCS? My Lea & Perrins doesn't... Perhaps it's added for the US market?

                                1. re: kiwiFRUIT

                                  Lea & Perrins does... the bottle in my fridge anyway. The top 3 ingredients are vinegar, molasses, and HFCS... I'm sure this must be true of many products. After I read that, I went through my fridge to look at everything to see what else I hadn't noticed (hence the pickles)!

                                  1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                    Weird. Mine doesn't list HFCS as an ingredient. I have: malt vinegar (from barley), spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spices and natural flavouring. The Canadian website has these same ingredients, the US website doesn't seem to have a link for them.

                                    1. re: kiwiFRUIT

                                      "the US website doesn't seem to have a link for them."
                                      something smells fishy here...and it ain't the anchovies ;)

                                      methinks the people at heinz [which owns l&p] are keeping the information off the US site because it doesn't exactly jibe with the lea & perrins commitment to "premium ingredients" and "highest quality standards."

                                      i've read the label many times, on bottles in supermarkets on both coasts - the US version is made with HFCS, and has been for several years.

                                      1. re: kiwiFRUIT

                                        Strange... are you in Canada?

                                        ETA: I can't find the ingredients on the website either... but here's the link to the Consumer Reports article where I first found out about it. (Scroll down past the cereal.)


                                        1. re: kiwiFRUIT

                                          If you go to the Fresh Direct website and search Lea & Perrins you can see the ingredient list by clicking on nutrition info. Here's a link... not sure if it works...


                                          1. re: wontonfm

                                            from the fresh direct link:

                                            "Vinegar, Molasses, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Anchovies, Water, Hydrolyzed Soy And Corn Protein, Onions, Tamarinds, Salt, Garlic Cloves, Chili Peppers, Natural Flavorings And Shallots."

                                            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                              Rats! See? I told you you have to keep reading labels because companies are sneaky and sneak in stuff they don't want you to know is there! I'm positive that when I first started sprinkling my fried eggs with L&P at breakfast seventy years ago, it did NOT contain HFCs...! <sigh>

                                              Who'da thunk expensive corn might yet save the day?

                                  2. I check every label on every packaged good I buy - for sodium content mostly. I check the bread labels for real whole wheat content, not just "wheat". I buy very few packaged products because I just can't eat them anymore.

                                    1. As a Type 1 diabetic, it's pretty much second nature for me to read labels. I always check the carbs, fiber and ingredients. I rarely worry about fats. With bread products I usually make sure that it contains whole grains as opposed to enriched flours. And I prefer no preservatives or HFCS. That's not to say that I don't occasionally buy crap. But I at least I eat it knowing full well that's crap and therefore eat less. Ha!

                                      1. I read them either compulsively/out of habit, depending on your perspective, but not so much to avoid or monitor, as to simply know what I'm buying or eating. And I do more scan than pore, unless I see something I think warrants further attention. I'm more more likely to put something down because I think it's overpriced given the ingredients than because I consider any of them unhealthy let alone especially "avoidable." Fortunately (and knock on wood) I've never been allergic to anything edible so that's a non-issue. On the other hand, to give your mother a break, unless hers is a new allergy, it would seem she managed to keep alive long enough for you to become a full grown adult so while her "methods" might seem bizarre to you, they would seemto work for her. (vbg)

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: MikeG

                                          ok, i'll give you that :)

                                          but she has had several nearly fatal experiences that could have easily been avoided had she only asked...

                                        2. I read labels. I find that I end up not buying many things because of it. My main food "neuroses" are the partially hydrdogenated oils, which I avoid at all costs, things that have more than say, 6 ingredients, things that have a longer list of unidentifiable food items, and any sweetener as first three ingredients.

                                          I don't always adhere to this, but for example, I was in the ice cream section, and some Ben and Jerry's exotic flavor frozen yogurt caught my eye. I read the ingredients, and there are like 20 things, of which half of them are things I don't recognize. I put it back and looked at the full-fatted vanilla bean ice cream, which had five ingredients. I ended up buying the vanilla. Now obviously, in this case the no-sugar-as-one-of-the-first-three-ingredients rule got thrown out the door, though that rule applies more with cereals.

                                          I find that the 20-ingredient "rule" prevents me from buying a lot of junk food (though it also ends up making me get more of the full-fatted version. . .)

                                          I'm more strict about not getting anything that has partially hydrogenated oils. (It's the reason I now refuse to buy any girl scout cookies.)

                                          Oh, the other thing I check for-- and I don't mean to sound racist-- but I will not buy anything that is product of China, just because of all of the food safety breaches we've had lately. The Japanese grocery store near me carries a lot of things that are product of China, if you read the original label, but then the English label all say product of Japan, just because the item has a Japanese label. I find this extremely irritating (not to mention misleading and probably illegal), especially because they almost always plaster the English label on top of the Japanese one and often find myself mangling/removing their sticker label to see where the product's origin is, the actual ingredients are, etc.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: anzu

                                            In Canada labels are required to have the ingredients in french as well as english and more often than not the attempt to comply means that they've slapped the french label over top of something useful like the nutritional info. I've left things on the shelf because I can't read the info...and I'm bilingual en/fr - it's not the language issue, I just won't buy something like a new salad dressing for example, without being able to read the cals/fat/carbs per serving...and something tells me management might be upset if I start peeling labels in the aisle. :)

                                            1. re: maplesugar

                                              Oh, I'm sure management isn't thrilled at my peeling of the labels, but I find it annoying that I have to peel a label to find the actual truth about a certain product. More than 50 percent of the time, the English label has errors in it--and in some foods, it's closer to 80 percent. So until they can get their act together, I peel.

                                              Besides which, I'm wondering if enough people do this, whether they'll get the idea that gee, it's really dumb to paste a label over the original label, b/c some of us want to read the real label and not the one entrusted to someone to do a poor translation.

                                          2. Always - preferably organic. No trans fats and especially no artificial sweetners (splenda,aspartame etc) Sometimes I look at fat / sodium content but mainly just want to be sure I'm actually eating food.

                                            1. I read labels, especially on things like sour cream and yogurt, to make sure I'm not getting any weird fillers or thickeners.

                                              I also read to avoid stuff like HFCS, trans fats, and sucralose. That junk has been showing up in more and more foods lately.

                                              1. Always read the labels, both the ingredients and the nutritional info ones.

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                  Don't read the labels at all.

                                                  If I want it, I buy it. If I'm worried about the calorie content, I'll eat a little.

                                                  If not, I'll eat it all.

                                                  Life is too short to read labels.

                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                    ditto ipsedixit 100%. It's just a habit now.

                                                  2. We're vegan and I'm gluten-free so we limited the processed food we buy but always read labels.

                                                    1. I don't buy food Made In China.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: smartie

                                                        Ditto on food from China for us or our dogs. It's an effort to find chews for the dogs that aren't made in China.

                                                        I rarely have processed foods in the house, but if it has a label on it I read it.

                                                        1. re: kkak97

                                                          My chowhound gets bully sticks from "free-range, grass-fed cattle" in Brazil. (Costco). I think most bully sticks are from South America.

                                                      2. always to avert allergic reactions. you would not believe items that contain pineapple and coconuts

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: jfood

                                                          Nearly three decades ago following my transfused folly with three units of "sangre de wino," I was allergic to (among a gazillion other things) corn and all corn byproducts. My guess is that ended up wiping out at least 60% of the goods on supermarket shelves! Allergies are the pits! Relieved to say the corn allergies seem no longer to be with me. <sigh> <---of relief!

                                                        2. Oh... Label reading... I never buy anything with transfats, cottonseed oil, or.... Paula Deen's picture on it...! '-)

                                                          1. I do - much to DH's chagrin who cannot stand to go grocery shopping with me, especially when 'I'm in the mood to try something new'. I am allergic to preservatives (!) - and there are always new ones that seem to make me break out with hives. Last year, I broke out from a can of TJ's black olives....

                                                            The amount of sugar added to various products always blows my mind. Take roasted peppers, for example. My grocery store was out of their store brand and I had to branch out today: half the brands of jarred roasted peppers had HFCS!!!! Sigh....

                                                            1. I only read some labels...I read them to get lots of the "good" stuff (fiber, vitamins, etc.) but I don't read them to avoid the "bad" stuff (calories, fat). That's my general approach to eating...I want to have lots of healthy foods in my diet but I don't diet or avoid foods. So I'll always read breakfast cereal labels but I'll never read candy labels. :)

                                                              1. I'm a real drag of a grocery shopper, always reading labels. I think I drive family members nuts on vacations where we're sharing living quarters that include a kitchen. My brother is more understanding of my habits, but everyone else thinks I take WAY too long. I have multiple food senstivities, so it's a healthy habit.

                                                                6 Replies
                                                                1. re: amyzan

                                                                  just tell your family it's preferable to the alternative - if you eat something you shouldn't and end up getting sick from it, you might ruin everyone's vacation because they're stuck with you ;)

                                                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                                    Yeah, if they grumble and grouse, I give them an Epi Pen tutorial sometime that day. I just smile and say something like "...and if I read labels closely and ask enough questions of waitstaff in restaurants, you'll never have to do this for me!" The gravity of having to carry an Epi Pen, er, drives home the point quite nicely, ahem.

                                                                  2. re: amyzan

                                                                    I can't shop w/ others because of the way I read labels and buy food. As my sister said, when she got frustrated with how much time it was taking, "It's complicated being you." I never think twice about how I shop. And, that's not even getting into when to buy local, organic, hormone free, free trade, etc.

                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                      chowser, i'd gladly shop with you. client field trips notwithstanding, i've only gone grocery shopping with another person maybe a handful of times during the past 10 or so years...every time, i end up feeling rushed, because whomever is with me gets utterly exasperated that i'm taking so long!

                                                                      1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                                        I need to find people like you to shop with! It would be a wealth of knowledge, for one thing. But, you know, as I get older, those labels are getting harder and harder to read. Why do they keep making them smaller???

                                                                        1. re: chowser

                                                                          well if nothing else, you'd get a kick out of the way the produce & dairy guys *know* as soon as they see me that they'll have to make at least one trip into the back for me ;)

                                                                          btw, your comment re: the "smaller" labels couldn't have been more timely - i just got a new, stronger prescription in my glasses today. oh, the joys of aging...

                                                                  3. I make almost everything from scratch and, therefore don't read the labels of the few things I buy that have to have a label. I do buy ketchup, mustards, fish sauce, oyster sauce, shoyu, dashi no moto, Japanese pickles, and some dried pastas (Asian and Italian style). Of course, cheeses, beer, wine, and booze--technically speaking--but little else.

                                                                    1. fairly diligent about reading labels and I even study the labels on the food that I buy for my dog and cat

                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                      1. re: Bite Me

                                                                        Oh absolutely! What goes into some pet foods is disgusting. And I don't mean the animals bits that most humans turn their noses up at, I mean things like "animal digest" (basically a stew of whatever is left on the slaughterhouse floor), corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, etc. Even a lot of the brands that claim to be "natural" etc. and to have healthy vegetables are basically corn. And some very expensive dog food is mostly corn, even ones that proclaim they have some kind of meat as the first ingredient: since the ingredients are listed by raw weight, after all the moisture has been cooked out of the chicken, it's really much, much less of the finished kibble, plus they use different grains so they can list them separately, but the total grain content is sky high. Science Diet is an example -- some of their prescription foods are okay, but their "original" food is garbage.

                                                                        I'm guessing dog food is off topic, but I learned a lot about reading labels in general through learning to read dog food labels.

                                                                      2. I check to see that there is no artificial sweetener lurking among the ingredients.

                                                                        1. I'm extremely diligent. For one thing, I have diabetes, so I always like to know carb content. And for another, my daughter is allergic to peanuts.

                                                                          As a result, I rarely buy a product if there are more than about five ingredients, because I'm too lazy to read a long list. So I buy very little packaged food at all. I just took a quick look in the pantry, and I've got canned beans and tomato products, pickles, apple-only applesauce, some Larabars, chocolate, graham crackers. The thing with the longest ingredient list is probably the graham crackers. Oh, and jellybeans, but those are medicinal since I use them for quick sugar when I'm hypoglycemic.

                                                                          1. I think one's personal level of uptight-ness depends on whether or not someone has an allergy and/or desire to avoid a particular food. I'm more on the anal side myself because I try to avoid sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, etc. It could also depend on someone's level of motivation; I read labels because I don't want to eat any of this stuff inadvertantly. Other people might not care as much about the consequences.