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Why a Name Change Is the Only Thing That Can Save High Fructose Corn Syrup

For five years now, the Corn Refiners Association has been waging a losing battle aimed at convincing Americans that high fructose corn syrup is not all that bad. Now it's lit upon a new plan that may actually work -- changing the vilified sweetener's name to the neutral, healthier-sounding moniker "corn sugar."

The Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of HFCS like Cargill, ADM (ADM) and Corn Products International (CPO), has petitioned the FDA to allow for what's known as an an alternative label declaration, arguing that "the words 'high fructose corn syrup' have caused confusion." Already it's leading to howls of "cornwasing" by foes of HFCS.

Although prominent scientists say it's no worse for your health than sugar, HFCS has been shunned by a large percentage of shoppers who believe the syrup is a toxic concoction that can lead to greater risk of health problems like obesity, diabetes and liver disease. Many people go out of their way to avoid it, even while simultaneously loading their carts with packages of processed foods sweetened with sugar.

This consumer revolt has prompted brands like Gatorade, Hunt's ketchup, Capri Sun, Log Cabin pancake syrup, Wheat Thins and Snapple to yank HFCS from their ingredient list, replacing it with plain old sugar.

HFCS supporters are smart to adopt a name that sounds like their product too is a lot like plain old sugar. A big contributor to the syrup's image problem has been its misleading name. "High fructose corn syrup" sounds like a bunch of chemists tinkered with corn -- a substance already overrepresented in the food supply -- to come up with a high tech sweetener. While that's a pretty accurate description, HFCS is no more engineered than many other ingredients in our food.

The misleading part comes when you consider that HFCS is not actually high in fructose relative to sugar. Both contain roughly 50% glucose and 50% fructose.

The question of whether the FDA will go for this "corn sugar" scheme is another matter. The Corn Refiners Association has been pushing for a name change for at least a year. In January, the FDA issued a letter giving the CFA a seal of approval, only to rescind it three months later after receiving complaints from the Sugar Association. Yesterday's formal petition is an attempt to force the FDA to officially decide on the matter.

If the FDA agrees to the name change, it's probably not going to change anyone's mind about the sweetener. But it could help the issue fade from view. "Corn sugar" doesn't quite jump out from an ingredients label the way "high fructose corn syrup" does.

After all, it worked wonders for prunes, which had the misfortune of being intimately associated with bowel movements. Not so for "dried plums."

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