"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.
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.
Finally, we shouldn't let the rebranding hoopla distract us from the one thing we can all agree on: We're eating too much added sugars of all kinds. On average we consume 31 teaspoons of added sugars every day, more than three times the upper suggested limit. (American teens consume 80 percent more than the U.S. average.) Since 1985, when consumption of corn sweeteners surpassed refined cane and beet sugar, total consumption of added sugars jumped 22 percent.
We could also probably agree that our priorities as a nation are out-of-whack when diet-related illnesses and obesity are one of our biggest public health crises yet national education about good eating is woefully underfunded. Consider this: In 2008, the Corn Refiners Association spent at least $13 million and as much as $20 million in a massive public relations campaign about the natural goodness of high fructose corn syrup, including television ads aimed mainly at moms. That's nine times more than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allocated that year for its entire 5-a-Day fruits and vegetables program. Is it any wonder then that the total daily fruit consumption of a typical American is equivalent to one third of a medium-sized banana? Or that 48 percent of vegetable servings that Americans ate in 2000 came from just three foods: tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and potatoes, which were mainly in the form of French fries and potato chips.
Thanks to these dietary trends and the shift toward a high-fat, high-sugar, highly processed diet, obesity is a national epidemic, and a costly one. New York State alone spends $6.1 billion on healthcare costs each year for obesity and diet-related illnesses, the second highest in the nation. And new data from the New York City Department of Health show that certain city neighborhoods have some of the nation's highest rates of overweight and obese kids. In Corona, Queens, for example, 51 percent of kids from kindergarten to 8th grade are overweight or obese.
Look, no matter what high-fructose corn syrup is called, it is added sugar, empty calories, and not good for us. But I don't know if I agree with Marion on this one: The reason the trade association is pouring millions into its messaging is because advocates have been successful. We've gotten people to ask questions about their food. I worry that the rebranding will confuse the public, making them less concerned about the ingredient. On Friday, the Brian Lehrer Show got lots of other creative ideas for what it could be called. Laura from New Canaan, Connecticut, suggested "C.R.A.P.—corn repurposed as poison." Estelle from Washington Heights offered, "Kid Killa." And Arnold from Rego Park recommended, "obesweet."
Call me boring, but I say we keep calling it high-fructose corn syrup.