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The Sticky, Tricky Rebranding of Corn Syrup as "Corn Sugar"

Everyone's favorite isoglucose has a sweet new name.

[We're still awaiting comment from the creators of the ads. We'll update this post as soon as we hear anything.?Ed.]

Cast as an evil, oozing harbinger of obesity and diabetes, sales of high fructose corn syrup have seen a downward spiral as companies swap the over-processed sweetener for healthier-sounding ingredients. So what's the solution for the industry, according to the Corn Refiners Association? Change the name. To "corn sugar." And presto! What was once a scary sounding goo becomes more natural-sounding, just as sweet and pure as cane sugar.

A new Web site and campaign rebranding HFCS as the innocuous term was launched today in the hopes that they will get FDA approval to change the name on food labeling. Over at CornSugar.com, ads and imagery of a maze mowed through corn fields symbolizes the path of misdirected customers confused by current labeling systems, as quotes from dietitians float helpfully above. (The Corn Refiners Association also own Corn.org and the icky-sounding SweetSurprise.com.)

[A brand-new ad, touting the subtle rebranding]

"This seems to be a last-ditch attempt to try and salvage a product that they know is not good for Americans," says Curt Ellis, one of the co-producers and stars of the 2007 documentary King Corn, as well as a Food and Society Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "They have lost some of their biggest customers as more industrial food companies are converting to table sugar or more natural ingredients than that. Companies are reducing the empty calories in their products." Indeed, Pepsi Throwback, is among the many products from big companies now marketing their use of real sugar.

In 2008, the Corn Refiners Association launched a similar campaign called Sweet Surprise, which featured an estimated $30 million spent in ads attempting to de-vilify HFCS, produced by the same team behind CornSugar.com: DDB and Ogilvy PR. A request out to DDB for comment from the creatives has not yet been returned, yet in the press release on the Corn.org site, the reason given for the campaign is to help people make the right choices about their health. "As Americans grapple with an 'obesity epidemic,' [their quotes, not ours] well-renowned nutritionists question whether sweetener confusion could lead consumers to make misinformed decisions about sugars in their diets," says the statement.

[Another of the new "corn sugar" ads]

"I do see their point," says Ellis. "The term 'high fructose corn syrup' — although it was a name they chose at one point in time — is confusing." The term "corn sugar" appeals more to what Americans are currently looking for in food, he says. "We want real food, not highly-processed food products." But Ellis thinks that Americans will simply start looking for "corn sugar" on products as an ingredient to avoid. "I'm sorry to bust up their field of dreams, but American consumers are smart enough to know that 'corn sugar' is just a quaint new way of saying 'empty calories.'"

Not that table sugar isn't industrialized as well, notes Ellis — sugar is processed in factories and subject to various unnatural processes like bleaching. But the difference between the two is overwhelming, says Ellis, who actually made high fructose corn syrup as part of his film's plot. "If anyone made it themselves, you'd understand," he says. "We had to get genetically-modified enzymes, we had to use battery acid. It's not a pretty-looking process. It looked like a lab, not a kitchen."

As sweet as their spin sounds, CornSugar.com's health claims are actually valid. Pound-for-pound HFCS has similar dietary characteristics as table sugar and doesn't even have as much fructose as some fruit, a fact that's been confirmed by leading nutritionalists. Sugar is still sugar when it enters your body — although a recent Princeton study refutes that, claiming that rats fed HFCS gained more weight.

The real problem, says Ellis, is that HFCS is cheaper to produce than sugar, and therefore pumped into all sorts of over-processed, high-calorie foods as filler. These foods —which have been proven to cause obesity — then look more attractive to consumers due to their low prices. Thus supporting the manufacturers of HFCS is a vote of confidence for cheap, unhealthy food, grown by people who are paid by the government to produce acres of empty calories instead of produce, he says. "We're rewarding farmers who grow the ingredients to make it, yet we don't even produce enough fresh fruits and vegetables to satisfy the recommended daily amounts for our population," he says. "If the corn syrup industry really thinks we don't have anything to 'worry about,' they might've ended their commercial with a trip to the drive-through instead of a wholesome home-cooked meal where little of their trademark product is likely to be consumed."

[A spoof of the corn industry]

After the Sweet Surprise campaign, the Internet was soaked in parodies, including some from the producers of King Corn, who equated marketing HFCS to marketing cigarette smoking. In fact, Ellis says the name change reminds him of rebranding cigarettes something like "white sticks" so consumers would forget all the bad facts associated with them. "One in three American children is overweight or obese, in large part thanks to the diet of sweeteners we're rearing them on," says Ellis. "According to the CDC, one in three children born in the year 2000 is on track to develop Type II diabetes at some point — one in two among children of color." That's something that a name like "corn sugar" isn't going to change.

[Image by Muffet]

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