“The Sweetener Formerly Known as High Fructose Corn Syrup”

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Recently, High Fructose Corn Syrup has been trying to reinvent its image like it’s Madonna.  In an attempt to improve the negative image of the highly criticized high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the Corn Refiners Association—which represents the makers of the processed sweetener—has petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration to allow it to start calling the ingredient “corn sugar”.

Although they insist that the name change is simply a way to clear up confusion about the product, the term “corn sugar” seems an oversimplification intended to mask the fact that it is a highly-processed food.

The Corn Refiner’s Association has already started running a set of television ads, referring to HFCS as “corn sugar”.   In one  ad, a mother who “cares about what her family eats” tells viewers that “whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference”. 

Oh really?  Sure, your body may not be able to tell the difference between the two sugars, but that doesn’t change the fact that HFCS is a highly processed product.

The “corn sugar” title gives the impression that the syrup is pure—like the sugar just comes right out of the corn.  In reality, HFCS is anything but “natural”.  High-fructose corn syrup is made in industrial factories from the starch extracted from corn.  The starch is mechanically treated with enzymes to make glucose, and then the glucose is treated with other enzymes to turn about half of it into fructose. 

As Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, points out, “Increasing evidence suggests that the metabolism of fructose—which differs from that of glucose—is associated with abnormalities.  This means it’s best to reduce intake of fructose from table sugar as well as HFCS.”

 According to market research firm NPD Group, about 58% of Americans say they are concerned that high-fructose corn syrup poses a health risk. The “confusion” the industry wants to clear up with the name change, it seems, is in fact the reality that eating a lot of junk made with HFCS is bad for us.

On top of that, HFCS is more than likely to be manufactured from genetically modified corn, since most corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggests that giving HFCS a name that communicates to consumers the highly-processed nature of the ingredient is the best solution. 

His suggestion for a new name?  “Enzymatically Altered Corn Glucose”.  As Pollan states, “The name connotes a highly-processed, novel food ingredient, which has always been the best reason to avoid it: not because it necessarily worse for you than sugar, but because it is a marker for a whole class of processed foods we’d do well to keep out of our diet.

If you could rename high fructose corn syrup, what would you name it?  Would your title cover up its true processed identity, or tell consumers what it really is?

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Ali manages the website and coordinates the online communications of CEH. She works with the communications and development staff to create messaging strategies and public education content for CEH’s supporters and online audience. A Bay Area native, Ali attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received a B.A. in Sociology and Cultural Studies. This allowed her to live abroad in Argentina, where she studied Latin American history and learned valuable Spanish language skills. Ali is thrilled to be part of an organization that advocates for healthy communities so effectively.