"Just make it an unintelligible symbol so we have to resort to saying, 'the substance formerly known as high-fructose corn syrup,'" one caller suggested on a WNYC public radio program about the Corn Refiners Association proposal to rename the ingredient "corn sugar." The rebranding campaign has gotten a lot of media attention, from the mainstream press to the foodie blogosphere. Last Friday, I was on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show with NYU professor Marion Nestle to weigh in. When asked what she thinks it should be called, Nestle made the point that the stuff should really be called "corn sugars," plural, because it's technically more than one sugar. She said she didn't necessarily mind the name change; it could actually help clarify what it is: yet another added sugar we shouldn't be eating.
Though I see her point—high-fructose corn syrup is a bit of a mouthful, and what does it mean anyway?—I am concerned about changing the name.
Look at the history of corporate renaming efforts and you'll see that they are clearly deployed as strategies to confuse the public and inoculate industries in the wake of advocate attacks. Philip Morris wasn't just tired of the old name when it spent millions to retrofit the company and call it Altria (which always sounded like a clear attempt to associate the company with "altruism" to me). It did so because the company was increasingly under fire for its tobacco products and because public health advocates had tarred the name.
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Yes, the "new name" is a classic strategy from corporate America: When your product or practice comes under too much fire from advocates, don't change your practices or your product, just rebrand. It's what the toxic sludge industry did when it started calling the stuff that gets sprayed on thousands of acres of farmland every year "biosolids." It's what the National Agricultural Chemicals did when it changed its name to CropLife America. And it's what BP spent allegedly $200 million to do when it erased "Petroleum" from its name and added the green-spirited helios as its logo.
The Corn Refiners Association name change is another attempt to present high-fructose corn syrup as natural—similar to and not any more harmful than table sugar. Says the trade association's website SweetSurprise.com, "High fructose corn syrup is made from corn— a natural grain product. High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) requirements for use of the term 'natural.'" But advocates have long pointed out that high-fructose corn syrup is far from natural. Converting the glucose in corn syrup into fructose is an industrial process, one that involves a genetically engineered enzyme.
The name change would also distance the substance from its tawdry history. High-fructose corn syrup was first discovered in late 1960s and took off in the 1970s largely because corn commodity subsidies made it significantly cheaper than other sugars on the market. It also increases the shelf life of foods. (That's why you'll find high-fructose corn syrup in so many breads and other processed foods, not just in sodas.) Relatively cheap, high-fructose corn syrup was a cornerstone of the food industry's supersize-me strategy; additional high-fructose corn syrup was only marginally more costly.
More worrisome, the name change could give the false impression that the ingredient, or its processing, has been changed, or even made to be healthier. And while the jury is still out about whether high-fructose corn syrup is worse than us for sugar, whether it's metabolized differently in our bodies, for instance, there is certainly reason enough to be cautious that it just might. Harvard Medical School says research shows that high-fructose corn syrup may influence appetite hormones, for instance, and blunt feelings of fullness; it also may increase risk of heart disease. Plus, new studies last year found that samples of high-fructose corn syrup had detectable levels of mercury, from an outdated processing agent.