Re “A New Name for High-Fructose Corn Syrup”

Parker-Pope, T., (2010). “A New Name for High-Fructose Corn Syrup.” New York Times Online. Visited on October 3, 2010:

As this article describes, corn syrup producers in the United States have begun to push for a re-naming of their products. While it may sound innocuous, this is in fact a major change in the way that High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is marketed to the public. Due to a combination of structural factors such as the widespread success of processed foods, corn production subsidies, and the natural human inclination towards sweet foods, HCFS is present in an astonishing array of food products. Recently, however, there have been indications of a backlash against the prevalence of HFCS in the American diet. Some health professionals and consumer groups have even advocated for its removal from many processed foods.

This recent trend in the public perception has left HFCS producers in a bind. They have an economic interest in continuing to produce HCFS at low cost and having it utilized in as many products as possible, but they are not able to change any fundamental features of their product. As a simple mixture of glucose and fructose refined from corn, there is nothing to add to or remove from HFCS to improve it in the public’s eyes. The main lobbying group for the HFCS producers then turned to its most powerful tool: marketing. By lobbying the FDA to allow a formal name change for HFCS to “corn sugar,” the Corn Refiners Association is attempting to prevent and further change in the public perception of HFCS from affecting profits.

The argument in favor of “corn sugar” offered by the Corn Refiners Association centers on consumer confusion. Their claim is that by changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar, consumers will be able to make more informed choices about the contents of the food that they purchase. This is actually an important issue in product interaction for every product; if consumers cannot differentiate your product from competitors’ or associate it with negative things, then they will not purchase your product. Therefore, if consumers generally have a
negative opinion of HFCS then they will avoid purchasing foods that contain it and perhaps even actively seek out competing products that advertise a lack of HCFS. By substituting the name corn sugar, the Corn Refiners Association is seeking to create an aura of simplicity and natural sourcing around their product. Sugar in general is a “natural” ingredient in many foods, so associating a highly processed product like HFCS with sugar lends HFCS the positive associations that regular sugar connotes in the minds of consumers. At the same time, using corn sugar removes the mention of fructose from HFCS, which while chemically accurate may confuse or sound unnatural to consumers.

From a consumer standpoint, the issue with corn sugar is not necessarily about improving the clarity of the product interaction. Generally speaking, many consumers are already familiar with HFCS and its role in the American diet, for better or worse. Changing the name of the product can be seen as an attempt to prevent consumers from connecting negative opinions of HFCS to the products that contain it, which actually muddies the waters and prevents consumers from making an informed choice. A consumer’s stance on the shift to the term “corn sugar” may well be colored by how well they are informed about the qualities of HFCS, and in fact how much they know about the debate to change its name.

  1 comment for “Re “A New Name for High-Fructose Corn Syrup”

  1. October 27, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Think about “Plums” versus “Prunes” campaign that was waged in California a few years back. Prune was just not sexy—it was associated with old people and constipation—not attractive. So a new, more exciting name was pushed by the Plum grows association. It did result in slight increase in sales.

    You can think of this in terms of p-prims. Prunes are for old people. Plums are good fruits.

    HFCS is a “bad chemical” while “corn sugar” seems a lot more “natural.”

    Because p-prims are so resistant to change, it is easier to re-brand a product than to change the bad “slippery thoughts” that the old name invokes.

    It’s interesting just how much psychology goes into product development and promotion now-a-days…

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