Sept. 16, 2010 -- If you're the industry demonized as a driver of the obesity epidemic, image gurus might tell you it's time for a makeover -- starting with a new name.
You can find high fructose corn syrup on the labels of baked goods, cereals, jams, soft drinks, sauces, condiments and ice creams -- one of the foods to which it provides bulk. The Corn Refiners Association, which also makes ethanol, starch, corn oil and corn-based animal feed, feels its sweetener is misunderstood.
Audrae Erickson, president of the association, said "the term 'corn sugar' succinctly and accurately describes what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from -- corn."
The association created the website SweetSurprise.com to counter the common misperception that all high fructose corn syrup contains more fructose -- a simple sugar found in fruit -- than table sugar, which is a 50-50 compound of fructose and glucose. Honey has 47 percent fructose, while agave has 75 or more percent. One type of high fructose corn syrup, called HFC-42, is 42 percent fructose, 53 percent glucose and 5 percent other sugars.
On the other hand, another type, HFC-55, is 55 percent fructose, 42 percent glucose, and 3 percent other sugar. And beyond the percentages, a number of nutritionists believe a growing body of research shows there is a difference between table sugar and high fructose corn syrup when it comes to promoting obesity.
High fructose corn syrup, of course, is not the only product to get a new name from its manufacturers in order to make it more palatable to consumers. The following pages showcase several more foods that have received new names intended to change their reputations.
Goodbye, High Fructose Corn Syrup; Hello Corn Sugar
"I feel partly responsible for creating the problem they're trying to solve," said investigative journalist and author Michael Pollan, reached Wednesday at UC Berkeley, where he's a journalism professor.
Pollan has written extensively about how U.S. agricultural policies made high fructose corn syrup a cheap and plentiful substitute for cane sugar.
"I also have specifically urged people to avoid products with high fructose corn syrup in it," he said.
Pollan said he did so not out of a conviction that the product was less healthy than conventional sugar, but because high fructose corn syrup is a marker for "a food that's been highly processed, that's concocted in a laboratory.
"Who do you know who actually cooks with high fructose corn syrup in their home?" he asked. "Who has it in their pantry, anyway? I would say the same thing if they succeed in changing the name to corn sugar."
Pollan predicted that "to the extent we're in this sweetness arms race, you're going to find them moving to higher percentages of fructose. If you want to give a sweeter hit, you put in more fructose," he said. "If it's going to be substantially more than 50 percent fructose -- the FDA would do us a disservice to allow them to call it sugar."
Many nutritionists and food industry critics interviewed in recent days have said they don't object to the proposed new name. Instead, they're focusing their energy on the overconsumption of sweetened foods that they blame for the ballooning of American waistlines and the associated rise in diabetes and heart disease. They just want Americans to consume fewer sugars of any type.
"Quite frankly, high fructose corn syrup is the same thing as sugar from a calorie perspective," said Laurie Tansman, nutrition coordinator for the Department of Clinical Nutrition at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "The issue is that people are consuming too much sugar. The bottom line is people have the cut out the amount of added sugar they're consuming, especially if they have a weight problem."
But Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, in New Haven, Conn., said it's more complicated than that.
"There was a while when the prevailing science suggested there was something different about high fructose corn syrup; that it affected satiety differently," Brownell said. "Then, some science came out saying that wasn't so much the case.
"Then, the thinking was sugar is sugar. And then there was a recent study at Princeton ... done with animals, but pretty concerning," that suggested high fructose corn syrup was metabolized differently.
The Princeton researchers found that rats fed high fructose corn syrup gained more weight than rats fed table sugar -- even when they consumed the same number of calories.
In another study published in March and also sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, researchers found that over the course of six months, rats eating a diet rich in high fructose corn syrup gained more weight, had higher triglyceride levels in their blood and developed more belly fat than those eating rat chow only.
Brownell compared the industry's push to change the product name to cigarette maker Philip Morris "changing its name to Altria. If you get a really bad black eye, the solution is to just change your name. Most consumers won't notice."
In thinking about the corn sugar name as well as name changes of other products, Brownell said: "It shows how this is all about marketing and not morality. There doesn't have to be any relationship between the product and its name."
Goodbye, Aspartame (NutraSweet); Hello, AminoSweet
In 1965, James M. Schlatter, a chemist for G.D. Searle & Co., synthesized the chemical aspartame while working on ulcer drugs. He licked his finger, noticed the intense sweetness, and accidentally discovered the product that soon became a staple of the artificial sweetener business.
Because it's 200 times sweeter than table sugar, aspartame can be used in much smaller quantities, thereby reducing the calories associated with it. Aspartame originally reached the market under the brand name NutraSweet, where it became a popular sugar substitute in low-calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages.
Another manufacturer, Merisant, sold it under the brand name Equal. Eventually, agricultural giant Monsanto bought out Searle and continued to market NutraSweet.
Japanese manufacturing giant Ajinomoto bought the aspartame business from Monsanto and in November 2009, announced it was giving the product a new name: AminoSweet. That name was chosen to reflect the product's composition: It's made from the amino acid phenylalanine and aspartic acid. One longtime caution that appears on the label of every product containing aspartame notes that people who born with a genetic inability to break down phenylalanine, called phenylketonuria, must avoid it.
Of the change, Brownell said: "I don't know the impetus for this one ... They've been losing market share because of sucralose [Splenda] being out.
"They may want to give their product a health aura. It sounds science-y."
Goodbye, Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed Oil; Hello, Canola Oil
This light vegetable oil comes from the rapeseed plant, which, for centuries, has provided oil for cooking and heating around the world. In World War II, it even saw use as an important lubricant for ships.
Unfortunately, it has a few unpleasant associations that detract from its appeal.
First, it comes from a plant in the mustard family called the rape plant -- a name with obvious negative connotations.
Second, unrefined rapeseed oil, when heated to high temperatures, has been associated with lung cancer, so cooks are urged to lower frying temperatures when using it.
Finally, the unrefined oil contains 30 percent to 60 percent erucic acid, which has been linked to heart lesions in lab animals.
In the 1970s, Canadian scientists began cross-breeding plants, replacing erucic acid with oleic acid to create a low-erucic acid product. The Canadian seed oil industry dubbed the new product "canola" in 1978 because it was a Canadian oil, and in 1986 it hit the U.S. market.
Despite misperceptions that it's dangerous to human health, canola has more heart-healthy monounsaturated fat than most oils -- olive oil being a notable exception -- and has lower saturated fats than other oils.
Goodbye, Prunes; Hello Dried Plums
Although the prune has long been a staple of European cuisine -- think of roasted duck with prunes or pork roast stuffed with prunes -- it just hasn't gotten any respect in the United States, where it was born in 1850. That's when a Frenchman, Louis Pellier, began experimenting with grafting the D'Agen plum onto wild plum trees, which produced the fruit that in 1932 began to be tenderized and packaged as moist, ready-to-eat prunes.
But over the years, prunes became associated in the popular imagination with aging. We talk about having skin "as wrinkled as a prune." Also, because prunes are extremely high in fiber, older folks drink prune juice or eat a handful of prunes to relieve constipation.
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.
Goodbye, Patagonian Toothfish; Hello, Chilean Sea Bass
"Financial incentives are the strongest motivation to rename fish with more appetizing titles," wrote Jennifer Jacquet and a colleague from The Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia in a 2008 article in the journal Marine Policy.
There are perhaps few more appropriate examples of this principle than the Patagonian toothfish.
In the late 1970s, an American fish seller working in Chile renamed the Patagonian toothfish the Chilean sea bass. In the years that followed, a fish that was traditionally considered a "bycatch" species -- one not expressly targeted by fishermen -- became the most lucrative species caught in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters.
Today, the U.S. imports about 11,000 tons annually of fresh and frozen Chilean sea bass, which has meaty white flesh and is high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.
But although the Chilean sea bass moniker stuck, the name for this predatory, deep-sea fish hasn't been accepted by federal agencies, including the Commerce Department's National Fisheries Service. On a Chilean Sea Bass fact sheet, it notes that the Patagonian toothfish "is not really a bass and is not always caught in Chilean waters," and is a different species than sea bass in this country. Much of it comes from Antarctic waters -- where it's technically the Antarctic toothfish -- and is then frozen and shipped.
Goodbye, Slimehead; Hello, Orange Roughy
This deep-sea perch, characterized by rough scales and red skin that turns bright orange once it's caught, goes by the scientific name Hoplostethus atlanticus.
Originally named slimehead after it was discovered in 1957 off the coast of New Zealand, it didn't have many fans. But after a 1979 name change to orange roughy, it became popular -- so much so that several marine conservation groups now have categorized it as vulnerable to overfishing.
By various accounts, including that of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, members of this species live 100 years or more.
By the time this slow-grower is caught in cold, deep waters, the fish often is 30 or more years old. And it's a late-bloomer socially; it doesn't start reproducing until it's 30.
Speaking of fish, there's currently another re-naming effort afoot. Great Lakes states including Illinois are hoping a name change will drive a market for the Asian carp, a non-native species introduced by catfish farmers in the Mississippi River basin to control algae growth. But the fish escaped, and as of late they have invaded the Illinois River and threaten the Great Lakes.
The state of Louisiana is promoting Asian carp as the silverfin. Over in Kentucky, it's being called "Kentucky Tuna." Stay tuned.