The Sweetener Formerly Known As…


It worked for Prince.

By now you’ve probably heard about the public relations disaster that is the sweetener formerly known as high fructose corn syrup.
After years of waging a losing battle to convince the American public that HFCS is not really so bad, the Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the FDA for an ‘alternative labeling declaration,’ preferring the more natural-sounding moniker ‘corn sugar.’

Name changes are a common practice in today’s marketplace .
When a name—for one reason or another—just isn’t working, the strategy is to regroup, rebrand, and relaunch. We’ve seen it in the corporate world: who even remembers that AirTran was once ValuJet, an airline best known for safety violations and fatalities? Philip Morris hoped to distance itself from tobacco when it became Altria; the Nashville Network added CSI reruns to its low-rent lineup and reinvented itself as Spike TV; and then there is Sean Combs, patron saint of name changes, aka Puff Daddy, er Puffy, I mean P. Diddy, or is that just plain Diddy?

The food world has a long history of name changing.
Consumer tastes, diets, perceptions, and health concerns are constantly shifting, and food names and brands have had to be especially mutable to survive.

How Sweet it Was.


Are you old enough to remember the days when breakfast cereals trumpeted their sweetness? We ate Sugar Frosted Flakes until the Sugar was dropped, in name only. Corn Pops actually added Sugar,’ to its name in the 50’s only to drop it when sugar fell out of favor; dabbled briefly with simply Pops, and is now back at Corn Pops. Honey Smacks had a similar history of name tinkering, trying on Sugar, Honey, and just plain Smacks, keeping the recipe intact throughout the incarnations. Sugar Crisp became Super Sugar Crisp, then Super Golden Crisp, before settling on the current Golden Crisp. Alas, Sugar Sparkled Flakes had nowhere to go with their name and disappeared from store shelves.

By any other name it’s just as sweet.


Prunes needed an image makeover. So closely associated with laxative qualities for digestive regularity, the mere sight of a jar of prune juice in a shopping cart could elicit knowing, sympathetic looks from fellow shoppers. The California Prune Board successfully petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for a name change in 2000, and overnight, prunes became dried plums.

The Chinese gooseberry had the opposite problem. Instead of an unshakable reputation, it was virtually unknown in the U.S. market. And it was confusing: the fruit was then coming from New Zealand, not China, and it bears little resemblance to what we think of as berries. It was renamed as the kiwifruit, and you know the rest of that story.

Running from an ugly past.

The artificial sweetener aspartame is hoping to distance itself from persistent rumors of health risks by morphing into AminoSweet; and canola oil shed its former name of rapeseed oil for obvious reasons. But nowhere have we seen the name change game played more often than it is with fish. Goosefish no more, the monkfish, pictured above, needed a fresh start to transcend its reputation as an ugly, ‘trash fish.’  Other, more presentable species, simply needed market-friendly names. You won’t find slimehead, Patagonian toothfish, hog fish, whore’s egg, or gizzard fish at the supermarket fish counter, because you know them as orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, king mackerel, sea urchin, and lake whitefish.

Recently we saw the rechristening of the congor eel to the more palatable ocean pout (yes, the very same fish that’s being gene-spliced into salmon), and the Asian carp is being remade as the silverfin. The Asian carp was best known as a destructive, invasive intruder that grows to 60 pounds and is capable of jumping in and out of bodies of water. It has bedeviled wildlife managers since its introduction to catfish farms as a garbage-eating pond cleaner, and the rapidly expanding fish population has proven impervious to poison and electric barriers. So we’ll eat it. Problem solved (and for the record, the silverfin is supposed to be bony but delicious).

Hello, corn sugar.

It’s clear that quietly surreptitious naming campaigns are a thing of the past. There have been well-publicized HFCS defections to cane sugar from top brands like Gatorade, Capri Sun, Log Cabin, Wheat Thins, and Snapple. There are already hundreds of thousands of web pages linking the terms high-fructose corn syrup and corn sugar. Netizens suggested alternatives like ‘liquid suffering’ and ‘cellulite syrup,’ and sent a flood of entries to a contest to identify the next name changer (the winner—Extra Virgin Pork Oil; formerly known as lard). It’s too soon to weigh in on the redubbed HFCS, but we’ll be watching.

For background on the HFCS controversy read Making Sense of the Sugar Wars.

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11 Responses to The Sweetener Formerly Known As…

  1. Thanks good article. I really love reading your blog today.

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  3. Janice says:

    The Corn Refiners Association provides a link through their press materials:

    I hope this helps.

  4. Cynthia 1770 says:

    Hi Janice,
    Is there anyway the public can view the petition sent by the CRA
    to the FDA. I’ve tried the FDA’s website, but can’t pull anything
    up. Any suggestions?

    Thank you,
    Trying to get the HFCS-Out,
    Cynthia Papierniak, M.S.

  5. HI-larious. And yet scary at the same time! Can we be so easily fooled. I am going to guess that a large portion of the population can, indeed, be so fooled.

  6. Another great article…do they really think that “corn sugar” sounds better? I’m not so sure…Theresa

  7. Thanks for good article. Hope to see more soon.

  8. Great read! Love the E.V.P.O! I too love Michael Pollen. It is hard reading labels in English, but trying to decipher the poisons in Bulgaria food products is quite tricky as well.

  9. Janice says:

    As a Michael Pollan fan, you’ll appreciate that his suggestion for the corn sugar alternative was enzymatically altered corn glucose. Yum!

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  11. OMG. Extra virgin pork oil? LOL–I’m wiping the tears out of my eyes. The name change phenomenom is so true—look at all the green washing. If a label has to advertise its health or environmental appeal then it probably has no business doing so…ethically anyways. Besides corn sugar would still turn me off. It’s the corn part, and being an ardent Michael Pollan fan I look for ways to eliminate as much corn from our lives as possible.

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