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Matt Rourke  /  AP
Displayed is a nutrition label on a can of soda with the ingredient high fructose corn syrup.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/22/2011 7:54:21 AM ET 2011-09-22T11:54:21

What’s in a name? When it comes to food, the right name can be a game changer.

That’s why prunes are now called dried plums. Prunes sound like something old people eat. Sales of rapeseed oil skyrocketed after the name was changed to canola oil — much more appetizing. And who would go to a restaurant and order Patagonian toothfish? That’s why you now find Chilean sea bass on the menu.

Corn processors have a similar problem with high fructose corn syrup. Some people won’t buy products that contain it. Rightly or wrongly (and the jury is still out on this), they believe this sweetener may cause health problems.

A variety of products, from Kashi cereal to Hunt’s Ketchup, now say on the package “made without high fructose corn syrup.”

Professor Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California, won’t eat products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. And he won’t let his kids eat them, either.

“High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of chemicals that are produced as a result of the industrial process,” he said. “High fructose corn syrup is not sugar. It’s something very different.”

Sales of the product have been on the decline for years. Corn refiners believe a name change could turn that around. They want to call high fructose corn syrup “corn sugar” because they insist that’s what it is — sugar made from corn.

Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, tells me the industry believes the current name is misleading and confusing.

“Consumers don’t understand that this ingredient has the same number of calories as table sugar, that it is equally as sweet as table sugar and has about the same level of fructose as table sugar,” she said.

A number of prominent medical and nutrition groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association, agree with the corn refiners. They say your body can’t tell the difference between corn sugar and cane sugar.

About a year ago, a New York Times editorial supported the name change: “Calling high-fructose corn syrup ‘corn sugar’ makes it easier for consumers to tell that sugar has been added — and easier to choose another product with no added sweeteners.”

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But the sugar industry says high fructose corn sugar is not sugar and is not metabolized the same way. They’ve sued the corn refiners, claiming the term corn sugar is false advertising that misleads consumers and should be stopped.

Consumer advocates are sour on the name change
A number of prominent consumer groups, including the National Consumers League, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, oppose the name change.

Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, believes the term "corn sugar" is designed to fool people who want to avoid high fructose corn syrup.

“We think allowing them to switch names and pretend that this is something that it isn’t, because it’s gotten a bad rap from consumers, is false and deceptive,” said Greenberg.

The editors at Consumer Reports are against the name change as well.

“It requires enzymes. It requires chemical changes,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. “As a result we don't think it is a natural sugar and we don’t think the name corn sugar is very truthful. It is what it is — high fructose corn syrup."

And now a few words from the FDA
Right now, high fructose corn syrup cannot be called corn sugar on ingredient labels. A year ago, corn refiners asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow the name change. The FDA has not yet acted on that request.

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But the Corn Refiners Association has been running ads for corn sugar since 2008. They convey the message that “sugar is sugar” and encourage people to learn more at CornSugar.com and SweetSurprise.com.

The FDA is not happy about this. Last week, The Associated Press reported on a letter it obtained, written in mid-July, from the FDA to the Corn Refiners Association.

According to the AP, Barbara Schneeman of the FDA asked the industry to “re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term ‘corn sugar’ as a synonym" for high fructose corn syrup.

Erickson of the Corn Refiners Association responded:

“We do not believe that our statements regarding ‘corn sugar’ are false or that any consumer confusion could result from our use of the term.” But she promised to promptly review the sites and make changes where necessary. Erickson also suggests the phrases “sugars from corn” and “sugar made from corn” might be used instead of corn sugar.”

My two cents
I understand why consumer groups don’t want this name change approved. People who want to avoid high fructose corn syrup in their diet know what to look for on the label. A name change could make it harder for them to spot this ingredient.

I also believe it is wrong for the corn refiners to call their sweetener “corn sugar” as they’ve been doing. The way I see it, if the term cannot be used on the label, it should not be used in any advertising.

There is one thing we can all agree on. With obesity a national epidemic, we all need to cut back on all the high-calorie sweeteners in our diet, no matter what they’re called.

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