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How Reliable Are Nutrition Labels?

October 13, 2016

Nutrition Label

Earlier this year, those ubiquitous nutrition labels on packaged food and drinks underwent an “extreme makeover.”  Everything from your favorite snack to frozen smoothies, fruit juices, and even milk now sport the “new” improved label meant to better inform you of exactly what you are eating and drinking. There is only one problem. Most of us still have trouble understanding what they mean. Some of us do not even bother to read them. For those of us who do, we cannot vouch that these labels accurately describe all of the contents.

Buyer Beware

Consider fruit juices and milk. Their popularity makes them prime targets for adulteration and food fraud, meaning something has been replaced usually with something less expensive, and sometimes even potentially harmful, such as clouding agents, or melamine, a toxic industrial chemical that sickened hundreds of thousands and killed a number of Chinese infants in 2008 when it appeared in baby formula. 1, 2

Less ominous--but no less illegal--is falsifying the nutritional content of fruit juices and milk. While laws in most of the developed world require accurate labelling for companies earning over $100,000 a year, the truthfulness of these labels is up to the manufacturer, so they are not always factual. 3

Most of these drinks register nutritional ingredients that fall within the allowable margin of error of 20% (which is large). Some products, however, can fall outside these wide parameters. A number of protein shakes, for example, contain added sugar, artificial sweeteners, and soy protein instead of whey protein found naturally in milk. 4 Even naturally squeezed fruit drinks can lack fiber, protein, and increase your sugar intake to cause adverse health effects. 5

When it comes to vitamin content, what is on the label is notoriously inaccurate. A government report cited that over 50% of products tested outside of the allowable 20% variance. 6 Apple juice, for instance, “has as many sugar calories as soda, without appreciably more nutrition,” Karin Klein, formerly of The Los Angeles Times, says. 7

Hidden Hunger

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 2 billion people likely suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. While the developing world is hardest hit by micronutrient malnutrition, or hidden hunger, “people in developed countries also suffer from various forms of micronutrient malnutrition,” WHO says, noting that deficiencies of vitamin A, iron, and iodine constitute the greatest public health concern worldwide. 8

Then there are energy drinks. Their popularity has grown exponentially around the globe over the past 25 years with claims of aiding performance, muscle growth, and recovery. While caffeine is the predominant ingredient, these energy boosters (EBs) also contain a brew of other ingredients, from Taurine, a sulfur-containing amino acid and extracts, to B vitamins and sugar. Regulated in some countries and unregulated in others, the effects of EBs on human health may vary widely from gastrointestinal distress, to sleep loss and even death. 9

The Need For Precision Monitoring

Driven by public demand and increasingly mandated by law, manufacturers and processors are fortifying foods, fruit drinks, and milk by intentionally increasing their content of essential micronutrients. 10 These added vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients can affect product quality, and if not carefully monitored, could affect customer acceptance. Their inaccurate measurement in products could also lead to stiff penalties and outright bans. It is no surprise then to learn why manufacturers closely screen these additives in their products.

The question is, how best to do it? Scientists have traditionally relied on flame atomic absorption (AA) systems for nutritional analysis of foods and drinks. AA is fast, relatively simple to use, and cost effective. 11 With the rise of inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES), however, this advanced technology is now generally favored in a multi-element analytical environment. A PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES coupled with a PerkinElmer Titan MPS™ Microwave Sample Preparation System provides manufacturers and other users with a large dynamic range, rapid multi-element throughput, and robust operating conditions that allow for thorough analysis of each micronutrient at lower sensitivity rates. 12

PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES

What does that all mean? The PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES is not only the smallest ICP-OES system on the market, but it also offers some of the most advanced technology available in spectroscopy. Its patented Flat Plate™ plasma technology delivers a robust plasma with zero maintenance. It has incredible linearity over a large concentration range of both milk and juice samples without the need for sample dilutions. And, it still provides for a significant savings with a major reduction in the use of expensive argon plasma gas. In addition, the instrument’s entire sample introduction system and torch assembly are packaged into a single cassette that is simple to use and maintain.

Need more proof that the PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES is what your lab needs to test for micronutrients in milk and juice? How about its Dual View capability that allows automated axial or radial viewing to deliver exceptional stability? 13 Or maybe speed, simplicity, and accuracy are of importance? One more thing: the PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES is the most cost-effective ICP-OES on the market.

So if savings mean anything to your lab, the benefits of the PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES are compelling. With this remarkable instrument on your benchtop, your worries over what micronutrients may or may not be in your favorite juice or milk will be history. If verified by the PerkinElmer Avio™ 200 ICP-OES, you really will be able to judge your drinks by their labels.


  1. Tracy Miller, “Food Fraud Alert! Pomegranate Juice, Olive Oil, Seafood And Spices Are Among The Foods That Aren’t Always What They Seem: Report,” New York Daily News, January  23, 2013, accessed August 26, 2016.
  2. Yanzhong Huang, “The 2008 Milk Scandal Revisited,” Forbes Asia, July 16, 2014, accessed August 26, 2016.
  3. Tamara Duker Freuman, “When Nutrition Labels Lie,” U.S. News & World Report, August 21, 2012, accessed August 26, 2016. See also, Krista Scott-Dixon, “Food Labels Part 1: What's On Your Food Label?, accessed August 26, 2016.
  4. Ireland Wolfe, “Protein Drinks Without Sugar, Soy and Aspartame,”, July 3, 2015, accessed August 26, 2016.
  5. Catherine Hu, “Juicing: Body Cleansing or Nutrient Depleting?,” Explore Integrative Medicine, UCLA, 2015, accessed August 29, 2016.
  6. Food and Drug Administration, “Label Claims for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements,” updated April 11, 2016, accessed October 14, 2016.
  7. Karin Klein, “Soda's A Problem But Bloomberg Doesn't Have The Solution,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2013, accessed August 26, 2016.
  8. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Preventing Micronutrient Malnutrition A Guide To Food-Based Approaches, ”International Life Sciences Institute, Washington, DC, 1997, accessed August 29, 2016.
  9. John P. Higgins, Troy D. Tuttle, and Christopher L. Higgins, “Energy Beverages: Content and Safety,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, November 2010, accessed August 29, 2016.
  10. Lindsay Allen, Bruno de Benoist, Omar Dary, and Richard Hurrell, editors, Guidelines On Food Fortification With Micronutrients, World Health Organization,2006, accessed August 29, 2016.
  11. Spivey, Nick, “Analysis of Micronutrients in Milk by Flame Atomic Absorption Using FAST Flame Sample Automation for Increased Sample Throughput,” Application Note, PerkinElmer, 2015, accessed August 29, 2016.
  12. Ken Neubauer, Nick Spivey, “Analysis of Micronutrients in Milk Using the Avio 200 ICP-OES,” Application Note, PerkinElmer, 2016, accessed August 29, 2016.
  13. PerkinElmer, “Avio™ 200 ICP Optical Emission Spectrometer,” PerkinElmer Product Brochure, 2016, accessed October 19, 2016.

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