W A S H I N G T O N, Feb. 1, 2001 -- Prunes by any other name would taste the same.
But they might sell better.
Plum growers have won permission from the government to start calling prunes "dried plums," and packages with the new name are now showing up in stores.
Prune juice will still be prune juice, however. Dried fruit juice would be a contradiction in terms, the industry was told by the Food and Drug Administration.
By definition, prunes are indeed dried plums, but many consumers apparently don't think of them that way.
"Unfortunately, the stereotype among the women that we're targeting is of a medicinal food for their parents, rather than a healthful, nutritious food for women who are leading an active lifestyle. That's what we're trying to get around," said Richard Peterson, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, formerly the California Prune Board.
Industry research shows that women between the ages of 35 to 50 overwhelmingly preferred the term "dried plum."
The Chinese Gooseberry
There's precedent for changing a food's name. Kiwifruit was once known as the Chinese gooseberry. And there are foods with dual names, such as the hazelnut, also known as a filbert, and chickpeas, also known as garbonzos.
But to Americans, prunes have been called prunes ever since a French nurseryman introduced the "prunier," or plum, tree to California in the 1800s.
The new packaging being introduced by major prune processors all features the word "plums" surrounded by pictures of what the purple fruit looks like before it's dried.
By agreement with the FDA, the term "pitted prunes" will continue to appear on packages in small letters for the next two years.
The industry admits it will take a while to improve the prune's reputation.
"Let's just say that for many years prunes were advertised for a very specific nutritional message. … It's strong association with laxation," said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Sunsweet Growers Inc., which controls more than 70 percent of the U.S. prune market. "It's difficult to change consumer impressions overnight."
The name change just might work, said Diane Phillips, a professor of consumer behavior at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"It's all in how you frame the product and the benefits you're getting. If you put a positive spin on it, people will think of it in more positive terms," she said.
Nager said the name change appears to have reversed a decline in prune sales. He wouldn't disclose Sunsweet's sales figures other than to say that monthly sales were now showing flat to single-digit growth.
Dried plums will still be prunes when they are sold for export.
"In Japan, prunes are considered a miracle fruit," said Peterson. "It's really just a function of a U.S. stereotype."