Recently, Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times interviewed several food-quality activists, including me, about a Sept. 14 petition by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to "corn sugar."
Her question: What new name would you suggest?
I thought all of the responses had merit - for example, writer Michael Pollan offered "enzymatically altered corn glucose" which has an appropriately frankenfoodish ring about it - but my vote was to disallow any change. My reasoning: the name as it stands is accurate, and the industry should not be allowed to circumvent the well-earned distrust HFCS has engendered. (Putting aside my concern that HFCS may be metabolically worse than table sugar - I think the research behind that notion is debatable - my main worry is that the syrup's cheapness, due to corn subsidies, allows manufacturers to sweeten a huge percentage of the American food supply. I believe that's been a significant contributor to the obesity-diabetes epidemic.)
Now, several days after the petition to the FDA, what remains striking to me about this whole episode is how public, how incredibly visible, this attempted subterfuge has become. The CRA clearly hoped to do this quietly - as it might have in, say, 1994, when the story might have garnered only a few inches of type buried deep in the Times' gray pages.
Instead, in the web age, the name-change petition quickly became an appropriately sticky public relations mess. After just nine days, a Google search for the twin terms "high-fructose corn syrup" and "corn sugar" garnered 143,000 results, and asking social media posters for their own alternate names became a raging meme. I happily joined in, posing the challenge on my Facebook page and Digg profile. Hundreds volunteered tags including "liquid suffering," "cellulite syrup," and several that can't be published in a family website, despite my instruction to avoid profanity.
It's too soon to predict the outcome of this net-centric protest, but even in the worst case scenario - the term "corn sugar" replaces all instances of HFCS in commercial parlance - it's clear that the CRA's Orwellian plan has been at least partially turned back. Far fewer people will see the term on a label and be reassured by this short, relatively innocuous name. But I think it's more likely that the process has been significantly derailed, and "corn sugar" will never gain much legal traction. One can hope.
To be clear, I worry as much about the impact of the Internet as anyone else. I worry about shortening attention spans, the physical cost of sedentary "surfing" and the potential for coarsening discourse as millions of web pages compete for attention by appealing to our base instincts.
But sunlight, it has been said, is the best disinfectant. The web's ability to dredge duplicitous schemes from the corporate-governmental shadows into the noonday glare is a great advance, one with implications that reach far beyond food policy. Any problem - including, ironically, the problems caused by the web itself - is better dispatched in an open forum, and the web is quickly becoming the most open forum the world has ever known. That is sweetness we can celebrate.
More information on HFCS from my website: Too Sweet too Eat?