Not a Sweet Idea: Rebranding HFCS as “Corn Sugar”

The battle against high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) seemed to be leaning towards victory. Consumers have become increasingly weary of food products containing HFCS.  Health concerns, such as obesity and diabetes, have been increasingly linked to the sweetener. In response to consumer demand, companies have been removing HFCS from their product lines. There is a downward trend of HFCS in foodstuffs.  More and more companies have been moving back to real sugar instead of HFCS as a sweetener.  A shift in consumer preferences demands it. Just as we were gaining strong momentum away from HFCS as a sweetener, the Corn Refiners Association now wants the US Food and Drug Administration approval to rename HFCS into corn sugar.
Heinz, recently launched ketchup sweetened with real sugar, dubbed Simply Heinz, along-side their HFCS ketchup products.  Hunt’s did Heinz one better, by transitioning its entire ketchup line away from HFCS.   It is clear that there is a demand for non-HFCS products, otherwise businesses would not make it.Now, a public relations campaign promoting the name change of HFCS to corn sugar, seeks to reverse this downward trend.  Will the new name breathe new life to a dying product?  On the contrary, the name change will probably do the opposite.  At worst, the name change will act as a life support machine, keeping HFCS alive long enough to say our farewells.  At best, the name change will draw unwanted attention to the health ramifications any type of sugar endures.  After all, their website states that sugar is sugar.  And as Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies, suggests with any type of sugar, “Eat less.”

How did HFCS become the de facto sweetener in soft drinks and processed foods in the first place?  It is cheap, cheaper than real sugar.  Why is HFCS cheap?  The United States federal government provides billions of dollars of corn subsidies, thus making HFCS less costly to produce.   Perhaps ending corn subsidies would finally put to rest HFCS.  If HFCS were to stand the market test on its own merit, it would fail.  It would be too expensive to produce, and would not be as financially attractive for food makers to incorporate into their food products.

Will the new name confuse people?  Whether it is called high fructose corn syrup or corn sugar makes no difference. There will be little difference to consumers that do not read the ingredient labels, since they do not read ingredient labels. Consumers that obsess over product ingredient labels will continue to avoid products with either label, HFCS or corn sugar.   No re-branding effort can touch that consumer base.   The renaming scheme is not a sweet idea.

In the end, HFCS and corn sugar are one and the same.  Same unhealthy product, disguised under a different name.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.