What's in a Name? High Fructose Corn Syrup's Pseudonym

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Over the past few years high fructose corn syrup has been getting a bad rap, according to people who care about such things (including the Corn Refiners Association). The group has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to be allowed to instead call the widely-used sweetener “corn sugar.”

What’s the big deal? Names matter.

Just look at the diet aid and appetite suppressant candy called Ayds, introduced in the late 1970s. It was very popular throughout the early and mid-1980s. Then a disease called AIDS began dominating the news. Even though there was obviously no connection between the acquired immune deficiency syndrome and a diet candy, the names were similar enough in the public’s mind that sales of Ayds had dropped by half by 1988, and the product was renamed Diet Ayds.

In 2001 a series of anthrax-contaminated letters were sent to the offices of various news media and politicians. Five people died and 17 others were hospitalized. The disease attacks panicked the country and shut down some public offices. The public hysteria got so bad that the thrash metal band Anthrax had to issue a statement explaining that they had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks and strongly condemned bioterrorism.

And why did the venerable chain Kentucky Fried Chicken change its name to KFC? Perhaps to make it shorter and easier to say, but certainly to avoid the word “fried,” which has a definite negative connotation to many health-conscious consumers.

As Jane Allen of ABC News.com noted, even the humble prune had a makeover. “Over the years, prunes became associated in the popular imagination with aging…. After some market research, the California Prune Board gave the prune a name makeover. It restored to the prune the identity of the fruit from which it originated, the plum. In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration granted the board permission to use the term ‘dried plums’ for prunes. Also, the board began calling itself the California Dried Plum Board.”

It’s all about marketing and public perception, not reality, and ultimately a rose by any other name is still a rose. No matter whether you call it “high fructose corn syrup” or “HFCS” or “corn sugar” or just “sugar,” Americans are eating too much of it.

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